This is part 1 of a 2-part series on stress and self-care for professional women.

“Let’s talk about stress, ba-by, let’s talk about you – and – me…”

Ok, lame intro. But seriously, let’s talk about stress. There is a TON of information out there on stress. So, if there’s so much information out there, why am I writing about it?

I want you to succeed. You’ve got big important things to accomplish. Important things to bring to the world and those around you. And, I know that for you to get there, you need accurate, actionable information.

We’ll start with a basic explanation of how stress manifests in your body, why you need to pay attention to your stress “tells”, and why you need to have a plan.

I find it helpful knowing what’s happening in my body under stress because then, in stressful moments, I can better recognize what’s going on, and remind myself why managing my stress is a physical necessity.

Stress is a physiological response to a stressor. Here’s a basic overview.

  1. Your body experiences a stressor (e.g., you come upon a bear in the woods)
  2. Your corticolimbic system is activated – BIG TIME (includes brain structures that take in information, assess the severity of the threat, pull up memories of similar threats or info related to the stressor, make decisions, and produce emotions)
  3. Your peripheral nervous system is activated – think of this as the connection between your brain and the rest of your body (prompts body to move away from the threat)
  4. Your autonomic nervous system is put in overdrive – all those things in the body that happen “automatically” (leads to physiological responses such as rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, nausea)
  5. Your endocrine system is also activated – aka hormones (leads to increased production of adrenaline and cortisol – will say more about this shortly)

These responses keep you safe. This triggers the fight or flight (or in some cases, freeze) response (and I seriously don’t know what’s best to do when faced with a bear in the woods). However, I’m not interested in your body’s response to a single bear in the woods. But, what if you were stuck in the woods for years, knowing that bears can (and do) appear frequently. Your body’s stress response would frequently be activated to the fullest, and you’re on high alert even when bears aren’t around.

This is chronic stress. And it leads to an increase in the amount of cortisol in your body. This is the important part. Increased levels of cortisol can massively impact your physical and mental states, including suppressed immune system (you get sick more easily), disrupted sleep, higher rates of infection, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Typical emotional responses are crying, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, edginess, apathy, or anger (thanks a lot, amygdala!). If you’re not freaking out just a bit now, knowing what stress can do to your body, read this paragraph again, please.

Now, I’m not here to talk about chronic bear encounters (although I’m sure we can agree that sounds like a book begging to be written). I’m talking about chronic work and professional stress. The stress that comes from being responsible for employees, their complaints, hiring/firing. The stress that comes from meeting after meeting, with no breaks. The stress that comes from constantly trying to prove your professional worth to those around you. The stress that comes from trying to accomplish 36 hours of work in a 14 hour workday. The stress that comes from trying to balance everything all the time – life, work, kids, etc. And doing it all day, every day.

Research has shown that social stress such as exams, deadlines, or feeling socially embarrassed also impacts brain structures responsible not just for emotions, but also memory and learning (the hippocampus) and decision-making (the prefrontal cortex). So, thanks to chronic stress, there’s goes your ability to make good decisions and remember things. Awesome. Not only is your body suffering, but you can’t think straight either.

I hope you’re getting the picture. You, a professional woman under chronic stress, are setting yourself up for serious health problems (if you’re not experiencing them already), poor decision making, poor memory, and a wreck of emotions.

This is probably not the picture of success you’re aiming for. Here’s hope. It is possible to manage stress effectively. But it’s an imperative, and has to become a priority.

Step 1: Learn your stress “tells”

“Tell” is a term often used with poker players – a look or action that gives away the quality of their hand to their opponents. Stress “tells” are those things you do that are a dead giveaway you’re feeling stressed. My stress “tells” include fatigue and irritability. I know I’m feeling stressed when I get short with my husband or kids, become an ineffective parent, and feel like giving up. Oh, and chocolate. Silly amounts of chocolate are also often both craved and consumed.

What are your stress “tells”?  I want you to give this some serious thought. And if you’re not sure, ask people around you that you trust.

Step 2: What are your greatest stress triggers? What is happening before your stress “tells” come out?  Is it a few big things? Or a combination of a zillion tiny things gnawing away at your time and energy? If you’re not sure, next time your stress “tell” comes out, take a break, and reflect on exactly what’s going on. What just happened? Who was involved? Where are you? Write it down so you can reflect on it later.

Step 3: Learn your relaxation “tells.”

What does it look like when you’re NOT stressed? When I have my life in order, and I feel some control, lack of stress, etc., I’m happy. Sometimes even downright exuberant. I feel like I’m ready for adventures. I have energy. I feel like I can accomplish things, and I’m good at problem-solving.

What do you look like when you’re not stressed?  Again, if you’re not sure, find someone you trust, and talk about it. You’ll probably help them in the process, too.

Step 4: What are your greatest relaxation triggers? When you’re feeling relaxed, in control, or not stressed, what’s going on around you? What did you just do? Who is around you? Where are you? Is this something that happens often, or sporadically? What do you see around you?

Again, if you’re not sure, next time you’re feeling great, take a minute to reflect on these questions – write it down, journal about it, whatever works for you.

I’d love to hear from you – your thoughts on stress and how it impacts your life. And, even more importantly, how you’re dealing with it. Remember, you have big things to do. And to get there in one piece, you must take care of yourself. Take steps today to make that happen. This is something I love to help professional women get a handle on. If you’d like to talk more about how stress is impacting your life, and how you can take steps towards better managing everything, drop me a line at sarah@momentinmind.com, or better yet, schedule a 20-minute consultation with me.

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