One of the things I’ve recently been rethinking is how stress impacts our lives and our bodies. In my experience working with women, I have come to believe that stress and its manifestations are the biggest crisis facing women’s health in the 21st century.
Our bodies just aren’t designed to function optimally in our modern fast-paced world. But over the last year I’ve changed my attitude towards stress from one of outright avoidance to one of appreciation and understanding. Oh yes!
Here is my latest opinion on stress and why modern women need to begin rethinking how it actually impacts their health.
I still recommend to women that they try and find some time each day to decompress and give their minds and bodies a break. But in the world we live, avoiding stress completely is an impossible goal and I have found that to treat stress as the enemy only ends up stressing us out even more!
So, instead of advocating complete stress avoidance, I try and help women change the way they think about stress.
In Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress (highly recommend you read this!), she says, “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”
This definition also highlights an important truth about stress:
Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.
The physical responses that we associate with stress and anxiety (fast heart rate, deep breathing, perspiration) are actually our bodies preparing us to meet an important challenge we are facing.
This is not a weakness in our composition but conversely one of our strengths and we can learn to appreciate it rather than demonize it.
To better understand the physical manifestations of stress, let’s take a closer look at what our bodies are actually doing when we are going through a stressful time.
Under stress our adrenal glands release two key hormones: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These are both stress hormones but they function in two different ways.
Cortisol provides your body with a boost to help meet whatever challenge you are facing by burning sugar and fat and converting it into energy. It also suppresses other bodily functions that are not needed at this time like digestion, which is why we lose our appetites or become constipated/have diarrhea when we’re stressed out .
DHEA is what’s called a neurosteroid which has a much different role in your body’s stress response. Neurosteroids help with brain growth and when they are released our brain functions are turned up a notch to help us learn from the stressful situation we are in and become stronger so that we can better deal with similar situations in the future.
DHEA is also a precursor to our sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. It’s been dubbed the “fountain of youth” hormone because it peaks in our mid-20’s and declines with age.
So our bodies are really just trying to help us respond to what they consider to be an important situation by giving us the energy and courage to meet the task at hand and by heightening our brain’s elastic abilities to help us learn from this challenge.
So how can changing our mindset about these physical responses help our bodies better handle stressful situations?
As we have seen, both cortisol and DHEA are important hormones that are both needed to help us through a difficult time. But the ratio between how much cortisol and how much DHEA are released plays an important role in how a stressful situation can negatively affect our bodies.
Too much cortisol has been found to have a negative effect on our immune systems and long term high levels of cortisol can lead to chronic depression.
High levels of DHEA, on the other hand, have been shown to lower anxiety, reduce depression, and has even been credited with lowering the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems associated with stress.
So clearly, when dealing with a stressful situation, we want to try and encourage our bodies to release more DHEA than cortisol. The ratio between these two is called the “growth index” and it is the key to rethinking stress and avoiding its negative effects on your mind and body.
The Growth Index
People with a higher growth-index have been found to flourish in stressful situations. They rise to the challenge and seem to perform at their best when confronted with adversity. The higher levels of DHEA in their bodies, compared with their cortisol levels, stimulates their brain function and gives them a boost of confidence to help tackle the problem.
We all know these people; the athlete who makes the clutch shot at the buzzer, the soldier who remains calm and focused under fire, the public speaker who just seems to own the stage. At some point in all of our lives we have all wished that we could be a little more like them. Well, the good news is, we can be!
Recent studies have found that our mindset regarding stress can dramatically alter our growth-index ratio. When people were shown a video describing stress as a positive thing that enhances themselves and strengthens their minds, it was found that when placed in a stressful situation, the levels of DHEA in these people skyrocketed.
The simple act of thinking about stress in a more positive way encouraged their bodies to react to a difficult situation with more focus and courage.
Conversely, people who were shown a video describing stress as harmful had far lower growth-index scores leading to negative physiological effects when faced with the stressful situation.
Learning how to rethink our stress gives us the space to appreciate the feelings we have and thank our bodies for giving us the help and support we need to get through the tough times. Just this one paradigm shift can transform your life!
So how can you begin to face the stresses in your life and learn to see them in a different light? I now believe that stress is good. It is our friend. It’s our body’s way of helping us rise to the challenge and take on situations in our lives that are important to us.
In fact, I am so passionate about this new way of thinking that I am making it one of my main teaching concepts at Nourish. Play. Serve., the women’s wellness retreat that I am co-hosting with my amazing friend Malissa Schwartz in November.
We’ve strategically planned our retreat around helping women get a head-start on taking care of themselves BEFORE the hectic holiday season rather than trying to play catch up AFTER, when your hormones and adrenals are fried.
Why wait for a New Year’s resolution? It’s much easier to take the prevention route and not to mention, we’re going to have a great time while doing it! I mean, who doesn’t want to rejuvenate their mind and body and rethink the way we approach our fast-paced lives in a jungle setting?
After this very special week of self-care and self-love you will be guaranteed to re-enter your life (and the holiday season!) feeling lighter, happier, more hormonally balanced, with a deeper connection to your body and a greater sense of clarity through all aspects of your life.
The retreat is happening November 14th – 21st in Costa Rica and we’ve got a Q&A call on Thursday, Oct. 8th at 8:00pm EST to talk about all the things Malissa and I have planned for you and answer any questions you might have. We look forward to talking with all of you about this inspiring trip!
Join us on our Q&A call this Thursday to learn more about other topics we will cover and the events that we have planned just for you on this tropical adventure!