It affects each and every one of us in orders of magnitude which we often underestimate.
Late last year, I found myself studying full time and working full time, whilst trying to juggle all the usual demands of life such as visiting family during the busy Christmas season (I did full time online university all through the holidays - yes, I know, insane! Oh and we moved house.) I was cranky with my partner, tired nearly all of the time and I could feel and see my body holding onto more water and fat.
(Note: I was pregnant at the time of writing this but I didn't yet know it! This could have explained some of the changes in body composition and my emotional state...)
And this wasn't the first time! I'm a chronic over-achiever and closet perfectionist - just like the majority of my female clients. Thank goodness for yoga and meditation or I definitely wouldn't have made it this far! If you're nodding your head thinking "this sounds like me (or my friend or my mother)", then read on.
The over-achieving woman
In the last 3 years of practice I have witnessed an explosion in stress-related conditions amongst clients. The most common complaints I see in clinic are IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, PCOS and other female reproductive issues. Each of these have strong links to stress and the way we manage it. I can honestly say I haven't met a single woman with IBS who isn't a perfectionist, over-achiever, busy mum and/or businesswoman, or an intensely hard worker with stratospheric self-expectations!
Among the busy, ambitious women I see in clinic, I've noticed many of us (myself included) think, "I can handle the stress." The gauntlet of juggling home life, family, work or self-employment, iPhones, our social lives, and all whilst taking care of ourselves and trying to achieve the current ideal female body shape of adolescent boy with breasts!
It's easy to see how stress drives the top five killers in this country which include diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. But whilst we all recognise the standard side-effects associated with stress (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart attack), we often miss what's going on in our own busy bodies. As we squeeze more out of ourselves on top of our already full schedules, fit in one more appointment, one more not-so-necessary meeting, multi-task yet another social or work gathering, we silently increase our blood glucose levels and oestrogen levels, ramping up our fat storage mechanisms and retaining environmental toxins, whilst losing muscle mass and sanity in the process.
In women, the biochemical changes that take place in our bodies when we experience acute and chronic stress can range from mild imbalances to disastrous consequences. Female biology is not designed for this kind of long term pressure. Many women are experiencing PCOS, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and infertility. There is a tremendous rise in disease in the female reproductive energy system.
Chronic stress tampers with the dynamics of the female body, and what it was designed to do. The fundamental role of women is to bear children, to be a mother, to be the keeper of the home - this is an archetypal instinct, a tribal one and not a personal one. You have a mother's instinct about your children, but not your boss!
This collective instinct is for the survival of your tribe. This is a role you were genetically designed for. You were not designed for a career. That you want a career is fine (hell, I'm a career woman). But let's for a minute honour the power our biology, and that our biology can be in crisis with what your ego dynamic wants. Women are finding themselves in a crisis between their biology, and the extra pressure or masculine energy they are pushing onto themselves, whilst simultaneously fueling the fires of her feminine. The typical woman I see in clinic is is trying to be as outside in the world as she is on the inside of her world. That is not how she was designed at her maximum.
That's why I'm running a Yoga + Women's Circle this Friday, a space for women to stretch, breathe and connect with themselves and others (great ways to avoid meltdown). We will be discussing the Rediscovery of the Feminine and how we may balance ourselves out in the patriarchal, endlessly yang-orientated world we live in. I personally can't wait!
3 ways to avoid meltdown (or cleanup after one)
Nuclear meltdown isn't good for anyone. It has long standing health effects, and it destroys the environment around us, upsetting nature's balance and negatively impacting on anyone within a huge radius of the disaster. The same goes for stress-initiated meltdowns! Here's 3 simple ways you can avoid the burn and save yourself some valuable cortisol.
If you've had a meltdown, can feel yourself building up to one, or are very clever and just want to avoid the damage altogether, you need to take a good hard look at your schedule. Be honest with yourself. What's important? What really, really is not important? What can you say "no" to?
I realised that whilst I'm frothing to qualify as a naturopath, I don't need to study full time on top of everything else I've got on my plate. Part time study is much kinder and still ensures I'm reaching my goals - just in a more realistic time frame.
Do some yoga, for god's sake! Or go for walk. Or ride your bike. Swim in the ocean. Put on some trashy 80's music (my favourite) and dance like a weirdo in your study, even if just for a minute. Whatever you do, move somehow. This gets you out of the logical, over-stimulated domain of your head and into the sensual domain of your body, allowing you to feel more and think less and ultimately, reducing stress and making you far more efficient (tell that one to your mind!)
The benefits of exercise are so huge that anyone would wonder why we don't do it everyday. Exercise reduces the risk of every chronic disease known. It increases oxygenation and blood flow to muscles and skin, making us more naturally beautiful. It balances hormones, regulates blood glucose levels, detoxifies our systems, and enhances mood. In short, movement is the ANTIDOTE to stress!
When I was in the lead-up to my meltdown, exercise went out the window because "I was too busy". My own personal yoga practice was limited to teaching classes, which, if you're a yoga teacher, you'll know is never, ever good. It's when we need it the most that we feel like it the least. Start with one minute of movement, any movement, and build up from there. It will feel great and reduce stress big time.
I know, know, this also gets hard when you're stressed up to your eyeballs. When you feel like crap, you eat crap. I craved chips (my vice) nearly everyday in the days before my meltdown. They're crunchy (a clue you're feeling frustrated), and they're high in quick release sugars (suggesting stress is sending your blood glucose levels haywire). Unfortunately, they're also a food that I've noticed makes me feel like rubbish when I eat them daily.
At this point I was so tired I was skipping meals and eating whatever I could find was easy, which usually peelable fruit, nuts and take-away - not ideal for me.
Luckily, my wonderful boyfriend saw I was in trouble. He cooked me a veggie-ful lunch and dinner with good protein everyday for a period of about three weeks. I was so buggered I barely noticed his act of love until was on my way out of it all. If you have family or friends who could help you in this area, reach out to them. Let them know you're going through a rough time and ask if they could support you in a specific way you request. Usually your loved ones will be happy to help (and willing to do anything to send away the cranky, tired monster that has taken your place!)
If you live alone or don't feel you can ask for that kind of support, make it easy for yourself to stay nourished. Order fruit and veggies through a co-op to be delivered to your door if you don't have the time or energy to go shopping. And if you must order takeaway, go for wholefoods such as sushi, stir-fries with veggies, curries with veggies, pizza with veggies, and anything - with veggies.
Vegetables are usually the last thing we feel like eating when we are tired, so make it as easy for yourself as you can.
If you manage to put even one of these strategies in place, you should see the stress monster leaving the building before too long. And if you manage to practice all of them daily, you will avoid meltdown altogether. And become my personal heroine.