Diane is a typical working mother. Her day starts at 7:00 a.m., with a flurry of breakfast preparation and getting the kids off to school. Then she rushes to get herself groomed and ready for the office, where her “work day” starts at 9:00.
At 5:00 p.m. she hurries home, to be greeted by a chorus of “What’s for dinner, Mom?” and an “I’m hungry, honey”, from her spouse. Two hours later, dinner is done, dishes washed, and now it’s time to do laundry and ironing. Later that evening, Diane collapses into bed near midnight to sleep a few hours before starting the routine once again.
Diane is feeling tired when she wakes up, and often suffers headaches during the day. She has also been more irritable lately.
Diane is experiencing symptoms of stress.
Stress has been defined as “pressures, loads or burdens” on a system or individual. These can be different things for different people, and may include such things as a fast-paced work environment, difficult interpersonal relationships, physical illness, or financial difficulty to name just a few. For women such as Diane who maintain an active lifestyle, achievement in the work place combined with motherhood means added pressure and stress.
Physical reactions to stress
Stress can affect your health and causes increased levels of certain hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This creates the “fight or flight” syndrome with responses such as a rapid heart beat, increased breath rate, dilated pupils, and increased blood flow to large muscles which tighten up in anticipation of action. These tightened muscles can contribute to chronic back pain and muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders.
Blood pressure increases during stress, and blood sugars may go higher as the liver converts stored starch into sugar and pours it into the blood stream to prepare for fight or flight.
Emotional reactions to stress
When stressed, you may experience certain emotional symptoms including feeling nervous, anxious, or irritable. Small things can seem to be insurmountable obstacles, and your ability to concentrate or make decisions can plummet.
Sleep often becomes sporadic, with nights spent tossing and turning. Coping habits or compulsions such as smoking or finger nail biting increase under stress. Appetite loss, or using food to cope and gaining weight are both common reactions.
Women React Differently to Stress Than Men
A study publicized by the University of California Los Angeles last year showed that when females of both animal species and humans are stressed or threatened, they show similar coping patterns: they tend to protect their young and to find support from other females. This pattern has been dubbed the “tend and befriend” pattern, and is markedly different than the typical male response: aggression or flight.
Researchers have theorized that this difference may be due in part to the action of oxytocin, which has a calming effect. Testerone decreases its effect while estrogen increases its potency. Females have higher circulating levels of this calming hormone, and act differently as a result.
Seven Tips to Managing Stress
Because prolonged stress affects both your physical and emotional health, learning to defuse its effects can be extremely important. Some steps to managing stress include:
1) Decide what can be changed, and what can’t:
Try and decide which stressors in your life can be reduced or avoided at times. Sometimes even small schedule changes or decisions can make a big difference in how you feel.
2) Set realistic goals:
Each day has plenty of tasks to be done. The problem is that often they are more than one person can reasonably accomplish. This is where learning to set priorities makes all the difference, and deciding what is “reasonable” for you (no one is superwoman, not even the most accomplished of us).
Try to decide what is most important for this day, and what can be left for another time. Make time for short breaks from work or the tasks at hand, to help you come back refreshed.
3) Set boundaries (it’s okay to say no):
This is actually a continuation of the above step. It’s easy to be a people pleaser, since as women we are taught to do for others. But one of the most health saving and important words a person can learn is the appropriate use of “I’m sorry, but I can’t take this on right now.”
You may also consider delegating some tasks, or sharing them with others instead of always being the one to finish everything yourself. This helps others grow in their skills, and gives you a chance to enjoy activities without the full load of responsibility for their success.
4) Take a break for fun:
“All work and no play makes Jill a dull woman” is certainly true. Overwork causes burnout and fatigue, and ends up making us less productive (or enjoyable) people.
Time spent doing relaxing activities is essential to emotional and physical health. For a young mother, this may mean having her husband watch the children while she locks the bathroom door and soaks in a hot tub while reading a magazine (solitude can be bliss at times). For another working on a crossword puzzle or a favorite craft accomplishes the same.
It is important to plan having this “down time”, or else it will disappear. Realizing its importance can help make it a priority.
Gentle exercise such as walking has a multitude of health benefits, and can help relax you as well. Choose a type that is enjoyable, whether a workout class at the gym that can also include social time with friends, or simple stretches at home in the evening.
Because neck and shoulder muscles often hold tension and can knot up, try simple shoulder shrugs or head circles to loosen them up and relieve tension.
6) Get support/help with the chores:
Although as women, it’s easy to take on the caretaker role for others, it’s important to know when to ask for help from family members. Children and spouses can be taught how to do dishes, pick up dirty clothes, or put a load of laundry into the washer. This also teaches them valuable skills and help them feel part of the “team effort”.
7) A sense of humor:
Laughter is the best medicine, and sharing a joke, or a good laugh with friends or family can do wonders in improving your outlook. It is also a known stress reliever, and research is showing that humor can have positive, healing effects.
By using these methods of identifying and dealing with stress, you can help to “destress” your life, and increase both your physical health, and your coping skills.