April 2015

Stressed Beyond Belief? It Could Be Your Age

Author: Becca Edwards

When I was 20-plus years old, I was like Goldilocks. I was more or less naturally blonde, carefree and self-absorbed. Most notably, I didn’t want life to seize me—I wanted to seize it. Flash forward to present day.

I’m 30-plus years old, have recently started my own business and am a mother of three young children. I’m no longer blonde. I can’t afford to be carefree or self-absorbed. And I work exceedingly hard not to let life seize me—at which I am sometimes successful, sometimes not, depending on how well I manage my stress.

“Stress is additive and cumulative,” said Dr. Kristi Blessitt of Bon Sain Complete Women’s Healthcare. “Prior to our 30s, most everyone leads a more egocentric life with fewer responsibilities. But, as we age we have more considerations such as family, career, finances, friends and other obligations pulling at us that, so often, we lose time for recharging. This is especially true for women since we are often the caregivers.”

According to the American Psychological Association’s most recent Stress in America™ survey, the demographic groups that consistently struggle with stress are women (being the largest and fastest growing), younger Americans and parents. The survey pinpointed finances as the top stressor stating, “Seventy-two percent of adults report feeling stressed about money at least some of the time and 22 percent say that they experience extreme stress about money.” Other stressors include family (more specifically parenting or taking care of ailing parents), career, health (for example chronic pain which is likely due to stress overload), and environmental toxins.

This data illuminates several reasons why, if you are 30-plus and/or a 30-plus female, you may no longer be feeling like Goldilocks. No worries though. It’s not your fault. You have a few empirical facts working against you. Let’s look again at the top stressed out groups: women, younger Americans and parents.

These days, most everyone—male or female—is working harder. Globally, women are joining the workforce in record numbers. According to a report in The Economist, women make up the majority of professional workers in many countries (51 percent in the United States). Yet, “social arrangements have not caught up with economic changes. Many women—and indeed many men—feel that they are caught in an ever-tightening tangle of commitments.”

The Stress in America survey defined younger Americans as “Millennials” and “Gen Xers.” Typically, Millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000 and Gen Xers are those born between the 1960s and 1970s. This covers anyone 15-50 years old, the mean age being anyone 32.5 years old.

Lastly, parents. According to a Pew Research survey, in 1990, teens had a higher share of all births (13 percent) than did women ages 35 and older (9 percent). In 2008, the reverse was true—10 percent of births were to teens, compared with 14 percent to women ages 35 and older. So the parents who had children when Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone) was still cute are now in their 30s and are joined by the 30-plus crowd that’s more recently navigating through parenting (and also feeling perplexed by their own fallen child stars like Miley Cyrus). Bottom line: Working, 30-plus-year-old moms are a trifecta for being the most stressed out.

So what is stress doing to your overall health picture? Let’s start with the major characters. Your body’s primary stress players, adrenaline and cortisol, are made by the adrenal glands (endocrine glands above the kidneys). These stress hormones captain your fight or flight reaction and affect your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism. Keep in mind, stress hormones aren’t all bad.

Can you recall an exciting date?—Perhaps the first one with your spouse or first love. Your armpits and palms are sweating. Your insides feel like they’re doing somersaults. And you’re negotiating your way through those awkward moments of silence. But then you get it together for the clincher kiss at the end of the night. Or what about that time you were driving in a heavy downpour? The hypnotic beat of your windshield wipers is putting you in a trance and the relentless sheets of rain are blurring your depth perception and vision. Then suddenly you realize the car in front of you has come to a complete stop; you brake and calmly pull off to the shoulder. These are instances when stress hormones are beneficial.

But if you are chronically in fight mode—whether the challenge has positive and/or negative implications—you are over-exposing yourself to stress hormones. And remember, “stress is additive and cumulative”—meaning that stress begets stress and can become a vicious cycle.

Think about a typical day. Are you running from one task to another? Are you continuously problem-solving, worrying or maneuvering around life’s big and small hurdles? Are you skipping meals or substituting meals with power bars? All of these actions sustain stress in your life and begin to affect your biorhythms.

Dr. Sheila Stephens, owner of Stephens Compounding Pharmacy and a Duke Integrative health coach, points out several negative consequences of this, beginning with the potentially dangerous use of certain substances. “Over-expressing cortisol builds on itself,” Stephens explained. “This is why so many people are reaching for alcohol or prescription drugs like Xanax to relieve stress.” This can escalate into a cycle of ping-ponging back and forth between uppers (several cups of coffee) and downers (several drinks).

Furthermore, the substances that you think are reducing your stress are, in fact, perpetuating it. Take, for example, wine. Though one glass feels relaxing, more than one is actually stressing your body and inducing you to create more stress hormones. In Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue, author Kathryn R. Simpson, M.S. wrote, “Diet and lifestyle choices can trigger the stress response… smoking, drug use, or excessive alcohol consumption will stress the body and increase cortisol production.”

Blessitt pointed out other notable and negative repercussions to chronic cortisol exposure. “A person perpetually in fight or flight mode is burning the candle at both ends. This increases insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, creates central belly fat deposition, is linked to thyroid resistance, and many times leads to adrenal fatigue.”

For many of her high-cortisol clients, Stephens prescribes clearing their calendar for 90-days. “If you have a job, you go to your job but then you go home,” she explained. “Across your calendar, you write the word ‘No’ and you commit yourself to not taking on any extra obligations. You need to give your brain and your body time to rest.” (Note: If you wake up between 2 and 3 a.m. every morning, chances are your cortisol levels are too high and you are not getting the deep rest you need to really support proper biological functioning.)
Stephens also asks her clients one simple question: What brings you joy? “The answer is different for each of us,” she said. “Whether it is walking, painting, or prayer—these are all are very valuable ways to find joy.”

What brings you joy does not need to be profound. In fact, Stephens says it is usually something silly. “There was this one client who just really liked to dance with abandon in her kitchen.”

These moments of joy start to replace moments of frustration, agitation or anxiousness, and rather than constantly being bombarded with cortisol or adrenaline, you start to find more balance (homeostasis). In this perfect, homeostatic, well-managed stress world, your cortisol would be highest in the morning, drop sharply until 11 a.m., and then decline gradually throughout the rest of the day until bottoming out at 2 a.m. Therefore, you would rise with energy, go about your day feeling content and capable, go to bed with ease and not wake until you have slept seven-plus consecutive hours.

Other methods of de-stressing include meditation, regular exercise (which does not need to be too rigorous, especially every day), bodywork (massage, cranial sacral therapy, acupuncture, or Rolfing, etc.), journaling and other creative outlets.

One fascinating fact is the role oxytocin plays in overall happiness. In her book The Hormone Cure, Dr. Sara Gottfried writes about oxytocin, which is also known as the love hormone. “When I’m socializing with other moms, and we dish about our lives or troubleshoot behavioral problems in our kids and husbands, we form a network of stress-reducing, protective females and leverage oxytocin… which lowers cortisol.”

Becca Edwards is a certified birth doula, holistic health coach, yoga and Barre instructor, writer/blogger, and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).

25 MOST COMMON SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
1. Excessive fatigue
2. Weakness
3. Nervousness/irritability
4. Mental depression
5. Apprehensions
6. Inability to concentrate
7. Moments of confusion or poor memory
8. Feelings of frustration or light-headedness
9. Insomnia
10. Cravings for sweets
11. Headaches
12. Hypoglycemia
13. Excessive hunger
14. Dyspepsia (indigestion)
15. Alternate diarrhea and constipation
16. Palpitation (heart fluttering)
17. Food and inhalant allergies
18. Dry and thin skin
19. Low body temperature
20. Unexplained hair loss
21. Difficulty building muscles
22. Weight control problems
23. Tendency to inflammation
24. Increased susceptibility to cancer
25. Increased susceptibility to osteoporosis

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