The Stress of Stress

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We are no strangers to the rough and tumble of life; our responsibilities, sadly, do not simply vanish at 5PM. We are obliged to keep the roof from falling apart, the children from falling sick, and the dog from going hungry in addition to keeping social commitments and looking fabulously assertive at work. Stress is always just around the corner. Madhurya Manohar maps the ins and outs of stress with a few exit strategies as well

The mechanism behind stress is rather simple: It is an expression of the body’s natural instinct to protect itself. While it seems like a natural by-product of evolution, stress can be debilitating in excessive amounts. In today’s world where women are occupying more positions of power in addition to their roles as homemakers, a chronic stress condition is just a crappy day away.

Women also face a certain irony in the larger scheme of things. While the anti-stress hormone, oxytocin, reacts better with oestrogen than testosterone, it is also needed in larger quantities in women than men to maintain emotional health. Women also undergo hormonal activity that can affect their vulnerability to stress.

Apart from gender differences, Dr. Roghy McCarthy, a clinical psychologist at the Counselling and Development Clinic, says stress can also be a genetic predisposition. Environmental factors will affect how the stress projects itself.

Biology aside, womenfolk are also more prone to people pleasing, inherent guilt and a variety of other pressures. In fact, experts have also stated that women find comfort in stress because it eliminates any guilt about being unproductive.

While work stress is common, it is not the only cause. A plethora of social and interpersonal factors can rattle your stress system. If you are a person who likes to be in control, seeing it slip away can be a major stressor. Broken relationships, such as a death of a loved one or a divorce, and sometimes even ambiguous relationships, can produce strong stress triggers. In the same breath, life-changing moments such as marriage, pregnancy, unemployment or retirement can also lead to active stress.

While pinpointing stress is not necessarily difficult, there are always the select few who are either in denial or too robotic to notice. Symptoms range from failing appetites to a lack of focus. You may oscillate between a need for control or faced with a glaring lack of it. You may become more forgetful, with an overworked brain A mind in overdrive does not a happy night make. Insomnia is the recipe for crankiness and you may find yourself unnecessarily snapping at co-workers. Mood fluctuations and negative thinking are psychological dampeners and this can lead to distorted routines. For quick relief, people may also resort to unhealthy habits such as binge eating. In fact, some health experts even put procrastination and avoiding responsibility as a behavioural symptom; your stress can be counterproductive.

According to Dr. McCarthy, periods of extensive stress can manifest in increased heart rates, difficulty in breathing, higher blood glucose levels, numbness in the body, and long-term damage to the immune system, urination, and stomach aches as well. Yes, chronic stress can bring about more than just a headache.

While stress therapy is not common, it is not taboo either. The approach essentially addresses the reasons behind the stress and works on handling it while preventing any unexpected system breakdowns. “It is up to you how you deal with [stress]. If it is really bad, it’s not worthy becoming a martyr. If it is manageable, we will have to take responsibility of the situation and set realistic expectations of it,” says Dr. McCarthy.

Women are advised to indulge in periodic rejuvenation. The key to successful de-stressing is to make it a regular luxury and do not only reserve it only as a convenient reward because it will never happen. Take part in anything that lets you disconnect from work—and it may be a good idea to keep anything with notifications away.

Soak in a candlelit bath with your favourite melodies; pick up that book you’ve left open at your bedside for so long; fix yourself an aromatherapy massage to relax the senses; grab a girlfriend, eat to your heart’s content and catch up on life outside work; wrap yourself into a cocoon and sleep.

Regular stress may also call for some deep-seated lifestyle changes and here is where the real challenge lies. Women’s stress response is moulded by a tendency to protect and nurture. We do not like to say no, we tend to think with our hearts, we prioritize the same way—which means we are prone to take up impractical amounts of work just to keep others happy. While the solutions are difficult to implement, they may be the answer to a more balanced life:

• Learn early on that keeping everyone happy, including yourself, is near impossible.

• When you have too many fish to fry, don’t hesitate to ask someone for help. Similarly, don’t be afraid of delegating, whether you are in a state of authority or not. There are always people willing to help if you are sincere about it.

• Make sure you have a social outlet if you are a person who finds solace in friends. It is said that social isolation and low levels of support can be stress triggers for women working in male-dominated workplaces.