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The Stress Series

Stress is a funny thing. Stressful situations are a natural part of being a creature - hamster, hyena, or human. The stress response is a triumph of evolution and a necessary part of survival for any species. Traditional human stresses were famine, disease, accidents, threat of harm from a fellow human, attack by a wild animal, and separation from the tribe.

Stress on A Schedule

While most of these were short lived, the sudden spike from a stressor builds up in the body over time, and nowadays, we have a whole lot of stressors hitting us throughout the day…

6AM: Alarm goes off – woken suddenly out of a deep sleep, shower, and head to the kitchen.

7AM: Three children who need breakfast, open the fridge – discover you forgot to get sausages and eggs, damn, it will have to be high carb cereal again for breakfast.

8:17AM: Leaving the house late you drive fast through traffic and merging onto the freeway a truck suddenly appears over your left shoulder, horn blasting, where the heck did that come from?

9:05AM: Sliding into your desk and opening your calendar you discover you were supposed to be in a meeting that started five minutes ago.

10AM: The meeting passes, and a couple of big tasks get added to your to-do list.

12:15PM: As lunchtime approaches, your coworker asks if you want to go to lunch, you pass and have another cup of coffee to keep you going.

3PM: A reminder goes off on your calendar that you have to leave early to pick up your daughter to take her to an appointment.

4PM: Weaving through traffic you screech to a halt in front of school and find four texts from her asking where you are. She jumps in and you are off, back in traffic, red lights again, but you get there just four minutes late.

5:30PM: Rush home to get dinner before heading out to drive your son to Karate practice.

8PM: Clean up the kitchen after dinner, empty lunch boxes, prepare lunches for the following day, settle the children into bed, put on a load of laundry, open up your personal email.

10:30PM: The house is quiet and there is finally some time for you to settle down, drink a cup of tea and relax. Your spouse is feeling affectionate but all you have energy for is brushing your teeth and falling into bed.

Tomorrow? Do all that again.

Oh, and let’s not forget about: too many demands on a small family budget, too many distractions and requests for things to buy and things to do, too many comparisons with those that seem to “have it all”, trying to be perfect, the stress of aging parents, the stress of dysfunctional family behavior, the stress of constant fear due to family abuse and angry companions, the stress of increasingly demanding work, increasingly busy traffic, increasing number of channels to choose from on TV, increasing numbers of texts and tweets and emails to respond to, increasing amounts of information to try to sort and process…

Anyone else feeling a little burnt out?

The Science of Stress

Whilst we all, at some point, experience major stressors (death, divorce, injury, etc.), small scale stressors like the above gradually compound over time to form a very stressful lifestyle.

When our body experiences stress - of any kind - the outcome is the same:

  1. The autonomic nervous system automatically puts the body and brain on alert.
  2. The adrenal gland automatically releases the stress hormone cortisol, and the neurotransmitters norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and epinephrine (adrenaline).
  3. The heart automatically beats harder and more rapidly.
  4. Breathing automatically becomes more rapid.
  5. The thyroid gland automatically stimulates the metabolism.
  6. Larger muscles automatically receive more oxygenated blood.

Rushing continually from one event to another eventually runs the risk that the autonomic systems are on permanent alert. In the beginning, this can result in gradually increasing levels of circulating cortisol. While this can turn an average person into a superhero in the short term, persistent, sustained stress and demand on the adrenal glands will eventually result in a significant drop in the level of cortisol produced. In effect, the adrenal glands “give up” responding to every stressor and become dysregulated.

The In’s & Out’s of Adrenal Dysregulation

Visible Symptoms of Adrenal Dysregulation include:

  • Stress
  • Morning Fatigue
  • Difficulty Sleeping
  • Decreased Stamina
  • Anxiousness
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Allergies
  • Headaches
  • Sugar Cravings
  • Dizzy Spells
  • Weight gain (think flash mob fat around your stomach)

The hidden impacts of Adrenal Dysfunction include:

  • Malfunctioning Immune System – getting colds over and over
  • Increased inflammation in joints, muscles, & the brain.
  • Risk of developing an autoimmune condition
  • Low hormones, especially progesterone, estrogen, DHEA, and growth hormones
  • Decreased libido
  • Increased blood pressure and increased risk for developing heart disease
  • Increase incidence of irritable bowel syndrome
  • Less and less energy and more and more depression
  • More allergies and food intolerances

Yikes, with friends like cortisol and failing adrenals, who needs enemies?


Modern life in the twenty-first century has impacted stress levels for millions of people. If we try to define stress, it is really quite hard to do so. Driving through snow in a small, aging car may bring on fears of imminent death for one person, while another can simply put on the tire chains and drive merrily on whistling happily. Managing with limited finances can give one person an ulcer, while another finds ways to be resourceful and see abundance in the simple joy of being human.

Trying to define stress by looking at how the body behaves is also not much help, the aroused state of awareness experienced when facing a loud angry, barking dog is not that much different from the aroused state of awareness while having sex, because an aroused state is common to both frightening and pleasurable situations.

Defining Stress (as best we can!)

Stress can be thought of as a psycho-physiological process that results from both the appraisal of a given situation to assess potential adversity and the ability (either perceived or actual) to cope with that potentially adverse situation. Situations can be experiences in daily life, including daily hassles (ordinary stressors from interactions with family, neighbors and/or school/ in the workplace) as well as major life events, which may be either positive or negative, such as a large promotion that requires significantly increased physical and mental effort, or losing one’s job resulting in financial crisis. Based on their duration, stressors are often considered:

  • Acute (minutes to hours)
  • Sub-acute (less than one month duration)
  • Chronic (months to years)

Intensity of the stress, even when acute, may have longer lasting effects that can overlap with a less intense stressor lasting for a prolonged period of time. For example – loss of a spouse can overlap with the ongoing stress of single parenting. Further, repetitive acute stressors (the same ones or even different ones) may, with time and intensity, have similar effects to that of a single long term stressor.

Real or Imagined?

The better question is, does that even matter?

In some situations, the stress is real, in others the stress is imagined and, unfortunately, humans can generate the same response simply by anticipating stress, whether or not it occurs, and whether or not it is merited. Driving through traffic to an appointment may bring up old fears of getting into trouble for being late, wasting other people’s time, missing out, seeming a fool, not getting a parking place, wasting money, and so on. Such internal shame based chitter chatter in the brain unnecessarily saps energy and increases tension, and all over something that might be completely false.

Learned Helplessness - (it’s not just your partner & kids saying they don’t know how the washing machine works)

How much control someone has over a situation has a profound influence over how stressful a particular experience will be. Research done by psychologist Martin Seligman led to him developing the term “learned helplessness”. In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.

Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a relationship, a culture, a tradition, a profession, or an institution. Learned helplessness is conditioned behavior in which an individual gives up trying to escape a painful situation after repeatedly failing to escape. We all know that women will often stay in abusive situations when common sense and a sense of self-preservation should suggest that they get the heck out of there. Learned helplessness is why they stay, and lack of control over a situation has a huge impact on the amount of stress experienced by the individual.

Learned helplessness can also develop for children. When stuck in a dysfunctional home situation, where there is constant conflict, anger, criticism, disruption, and bullying, a child frequently has to put up with the situation, having no options to go anywhere else. The combination of the stressful environment and lack of choice are a double whammy to the brain.

Life situations can create stress for several reasons:

  • We feel unprepared for them
  • We are unhappy about them
  • We don’t feel able to cope with them

Managing expectations

A large component of stress is our relationship with how something turned out in relation to how we expected it to turn out. Feeling stressed and out of control is like sitting on the tail of a dragon as it flies through the air, there is no way to have any control, all that can be done is to simply hang on. For many, many people this is probably a very applicable description of how they feel about their lives. One of the most important steps you can take in returning your body to health, is to start working on how to climb along the tail of the dragon so that you have it harnessed and you are in charge.


In our last blog we talked about expectations. Some have the glass half full attitude – they seem to be the optimists and can always make the most of a situation, whatever it seems to be. Others are more of a glass half empty and when things don’t go their way – it’s a disaster of gigantic proportions. The greater the gap between our expectations and reality – the greater the potential for a stress response. Most of the time, we really can’t change reality, so the place we can have an effect is with our expectations.

“Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst”

You don’t need to wander around all doom and gloom – we DO hope for the best. However, by planning for the worst, we are realistic that things could go wrong. If they do, that closes the gap between expectation and reality and in closing the gap we feel the stress of change or disruption less.

Seven Stress Survival Tips:

  1. Learn Relaxation Techniques

Practicing meditation or breathing awareness every day can relieve chronic stress and realign your outlook in a more positive way. Good breathing habits alone can improve both your psychological and physical well-being. Breath deeply from your belly; big long slow breaths that fill your lungs and lead you to a place of calm and relaxation. Deep belly breathing tells you brain “it’s all good, nothing to worry about here, calm down”.

  1. Set Realistic Goals

Learning to say “No” is essential for some people. Assess your schedule and identify tasks or activities that you can or should let go. Don’t automatically volunteer to do something until you’ve considered whether it is feasible and healthy for you to do so. There is an amazing study that looked at AIDS patients and how they fared over the duration of their illness. There was one characteristic that differentiated those who survived longer, - it was the capacity to say “no” to a favor.

  • Be polite but firm. This shows that while you’re sympathetic, your mind is made up. Being wishy-washy only builds false hopes.
  • Keep your answer short. A lengthy justification of why you can’t is not necessary. Try “I’m sorry, I’m not available then” or “I have another commitment”.
  • When in doubt, say “no” now and then change your mind later. It is more disappointing all round if someone is counting on you and then you let them down.
  1. Exercise

You don’t have to train for a marathon, but regular, moderate exercise helps ease tension and improves sleep and self-esteem. Making exercise a habit is key. Working out is uncomfortable and difficult when you aren’t in shape. But, the good news is that you don’t need to become a complete exercise junkie to get to a place where exercise is no longer a pain. If it’s hard to go on your own, find a buddy and make a joint commitment to each other to not let each other down. Even if you feel like letting yourself down, if you have made a commitment to an exercise buddy, it is harder to let her down.

  1. Enjoy Yourself

Taking the time for a favorite hobby is a great way of connecting with and nurturing your creative self. Whatever it may be, value yourself by setting aside an evening or even an hour a week to do something you really enjoy.

  1. Visualization

Athletes achieve results by picturing themselves crossing the finish line first. Use the same technique to practice “seeing” yourself succeed in whatever situation is uppermost in your mind. There are lots of resources on the internet about visualization, about imagining what you want. The key is to focus on asking for what you want more of. If you have some love in your life, ask for more of that. If you have some money in your life, ask for more of it. If you want to have a particular activity you like to do, focus on doing more of that. Focus on what you want more of rather than on what you don’t have.

  1. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

A good diet is often the first thing to go flying out the window when we’re feeling stressed. Grabbing quick food loaded with things we’d do better not to eat is often driven by brain chemistry that is on overload. Making a meal instead of buying one ready-made may seem like a challenge, but it will be probably cheaper and certainly better for you, with the added bonus that the simple action of doing something good for yourself can soothe stressful feelings. Aim for low glycemic foods that are as natural as possible. Avoid soda completely, and carry protein based snacks like nuts with you at all times so that you don’t end up eating sugary snacks. Remember that the brain doesn’t have an “off” button for sugar and it is therefore just so much easier not to start. Remember to separate eating from stress. If you are feeling stressed, your body cannot digest food properly. When you are ready to eat, take a moment to be still, put aside what worries you and instead relish the food in front of you and allow it to nourish you.

  1. Talk About It

Sharing your troubles with a friend may help you to put things in perspective and to feel that you’re not alone. You may also learn some other ways to manage stress effectively. Women in particular have sat and connected through talking for millennia. Sitting, chatting, and talking is how we bond and build relationships and support each other. Choose your friends wisely though. Invite around you the people who will help support you as you help yourself. If you find you have people around you who put you down for wanting to change, or who dismiss you and your goals, give some hard thought as to whether you want to continue inviting that kind of negative energy into your life. If you want to undo some of your harmful patterns, you will do best with people who are on your side to support you, who will prepare orange slices instead of donuts, who will validate your feelings rather than dismiss them, who will be proud of you for the changes you want to make, who will be your cheerleaders.

We know post pandemic, some ladies are feeling a little alone, but you’re not - we created the Sexy Sassy Sisterhood for exactly this reason; because you’re not alone, and with science and sisterhood, we can help find the solutions!