Stress, in small doses, can be extremely beneficial to our productivity, performance, safety, and health. It enables us to focus on a demanding task, set a personal record in a 100-meter sprint, hit the brakes to avoid an accident, and even fight off a pesky cold. But when stress sticks around for too long, it can wreak havoc on our mental and physical well-being.
Reflecting upon my college years, I realized that I had spent too much of that time burdened by stress. It nearly wove itself into my very personality. This is just how I’m wired, I would think. In reality, external forces — a challenging course load, athletic aspirations, a yet unplanned future — and my methods of facing them led to chronic stress. I found myself experiencing several seemingly unconnected symptoms that I later discovered were brought on by that constant worrying and struggle for control.
The Toll on the Female Body
Because women process stress hormones differently than men, we experience different and more pronounced symptoms. Women are more prone to depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders induced by stress. Such conditions can be crippling if not acknowledged and treated (usually with professional help). Stress doesn't just impact mental and emotional functioning, though; it often manifests itself in various ways throughout the body.
Sex hormones called androgens rapidly increase during periods of stress and, along with raised levels of cortisol, can lead to those dreaded acne breakouts.
Wondering why you keep breaking out no matter how many expensive skincare routines you try? It could be stress. Sex hormones called androgens rapidly increase during periods of stress and, along with raised levels of cortisol, can lead to those dreaded acne breakouts. Are you noticing more hair in your hairbrush? Androgens can also impact your hair follicles, prompting hair loss.
Many of us have nights when we lie awake, unable to fall asleep due to the thoughts spinning through our heads. This is a mere inconvenience when it happens every once in a while, but when it occurs every night, it can become incapacitating. When stress becomes part of your daily life, you may start to suffer from insomnia. Accumulated worry can make it difficult for you to fall asleep, stay asleep, and/or sleep soundly which will, of course, lead to fatigue.
Despite a healthy diet and exercise regimen, you can find yourself gaining weight if your stress levels are not in check. Higher levels of cortisol during stressful times can lead to a decreased metabolism, increased cravings for carbs and sweets, and the eventual accrual of visceral fat. Sometimes skipping the gym and opting for a restful evening can be more beneficial for your health and waistline.
Women suffering from chronic stress may also experience more severe PMS symptoms.
If you’re dealing with an irregular cycle or other menstrual issues, stress could be the culprit. Stress alters your hormone levels and can throw off the delicate balance that keeps your cycle predictable. Women suffering from chronic stress may also experience more severe PMS symptoms.
Research has also shown that stress can negatively impact a woman’s fertility. One study showed that women with higher levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme associated with stress, were twelve percent less likely to conceive than women with lower levels. So, the clichéd advice to “just relax” may actually help some women on their journey towards motherhood.
How To Cope with Stress
Women can be plagued by these, and other symptoms, for months or years without knowing that the antidote is to manage and reduce stress. That, of course, is easier said than done, but there are many proven strategies for accomplishing this. Healthy exercise (choose something you actually enjoy!), a balanced diet, and adequate sleep (between seven and nine hours) all help to regulate your body and decrease stress.
Finding time for the activities and people you love will actually improve your mental and physical health.
Finding time for the activities and people that you love is also very important. Even if it seems like it may “set you back,” choosing to read a novel or meet a friend for coffee, rather than forging ahead with your lengthy to-do list, will actually improve your mental and physical health (and make that to-do list less daunting). Looking on the bright side, learning to say "no," and carving out time for silence, meditation, prayer, or journaling will also enable you to breathe easier and cast off the burden of stress.
In a society that seems to praise stress and the “go, go, go” lifestyle, choosing to slow down and become more carefree can be difficult. Prioritizing your mental and physical health doesn't mean that you're neglecting responsibility or surrendering your goals. Rather, it’s determining to live in a way that will better enable you to achieve all that you have set out to achieve.
Since my collegiate years, I have found that stress is not an innate aspect of my personality. It’s not “how I’m wired.” Instead, chronic stress and all of its negative side effects were holding me back from becoming the woman I was created to be. Abandoning the belief that I had to constantly be accomplishing, I repossessed a radiant life that instead emphasized simple joys, goodness, beauty, and love. My skin cleared up, my hair regained thickness and shine, my sleep improved, and, most significantly, happiness began to consistently prevail over worry and anxiety. Saying farewell to stress will enable you to seize each day with a brighter, more confident smile and a fuller heart.