Worrying about being able to pay the bills? The babysitter canceled—again? Situations like these are the modern-day equivalent of being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, and our bodies rev up to face the threats, says Paul J. Rosch, MD, president of the American Institute of Stress.
Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of physical and emotional problems. Plus, women often have stronger stress reactions than men, maybe because the area where emotions are processed in our brains is larger. Even more of a reason to ID your stress and learn to let it go.
Researchers once blamed tension headaches on tight muscles in the face and neck. But now they think that stress-induced fluctuations in neurotransmitters—like serotonin and endorphins—also activate pain pathways in the brain, leading to headaches. In either case, ouch!
Just 10 minutes a day of mindful relaxation—like deep breathing or meditation—can ease the muscle tension that can trigger a headache, says Lisa Corbin, MD, medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Colorado Hospital.
Try this: Sit in a quiet place, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath through your nose, and let it fill your abdomen; hold it for 5 seconds, then exhale. Studies have shown that simple, deep-breathing exercises like this reduce blood pressure and promote a sense of well-being.
A bad day really can go straight to your face: Chronic-stress hormones can increase oil production in skin glands. The result can be blemishes or full-blown acne.
The Chinese tradition of drinking hot water with lemon helps detoxify your skin. Also try slowly rubbing a dry loofah up your body, starting from the ankles. This helps blood circulate and is invigorating and calming.
Sometimes that pain in the neck from the office goes home with you in the form of sore, stiff muscles. After tensing up all day, trigger points within the muscles can go into tiny spasms and cause intense neck cramps.
Massage—from hot stones to ischemic-compression therapy, during which trigger points are probed—can help relax tight muscles in your neck or upper back. Or try Kneipp hydrotherapy: Sit in bathwater that’s as cold as you can tolerate, then warm up the water; alternate between cold and hot three to four times while soaking. You can also take a cold shower or splash cold water on sore muscles for 10 to 60 seconds; the dramatic change in temperature may constrict and open blood vessels, removing toxins like lactic acid and improving blood supply and lymph flow. A recent study also showed that cold-water therapy can reduce fibromyalgia pain.
If you can’t stop yawning, it’s probably because you’ve spent hours in bed ruminating instead of sleeping. Too many restless nights, and your days will be shot—memory is impaired and you may feel more irritable and moody.
Progressive muscle-relaxation is another anti-insomnia technique: Beginning at your toes, tighten the muscles in that area, hold for 5 seconds, then release; continue with each muscle group, going up the length of your body. Breathe calmly throughout the exercise.
Period problems and infertility
Bad cramps? No period? The reproductive system is ground zero for stress in many women, says Anne Nedrow, MD, medical director of women’s primary care and integrative medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University’s Center for Women’s Health. “Sometimes it starts when young women go off to college and have excessive bleeding or don’t bleed at all,” she says. There’s also a strong mind-body connection that can interfere with fertility and sexual function, Dr. Nedrow says.
Acupuncture can help regulate periods, diminish pain, and improve pregnancy and birth rates in women having in vitro fertilization. “It’s thought to unblock certain energy pathways,” says Dr. Nedrow.
Stress could be causing that upward tick in the numbers on your scale. Some studies suggest that our stressed-out bodies are becoming immune to the continuous secretion of adrenaline. Instead of burning more calories, our hyped-up systems produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that encourages the storage of fat.
Instead of snacking on junk food the next time you’re under pressure, take a good brisk walk. Studies say exercise relieves stress and burns calories.
Replacing high-fat snacks with healthier options can help you relax too, Klein says. Carbohydrate-rich foods like yams increase serotonin in the brain, which promotes good feelings. And whole grains, bananas, avocados, chicken, spinach, and broccoli all contain vitamin B, which can boost your sense of well-being.
Stress weakens the immune system and worsens chronic conditions like asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Laughing your way through shows may hike your body’s natural disease-fighting cells or relieve tightness in your chest. Even “fake” laughter has been shown in brain scans to work.
Your too-heavy purse could, indeed, be causing your sore shoulders—but hunching over the computer or phone could also be the culprit. This position wreaks havoc on your posture and makes your head jut forward, creating an SOS situation for shoulder and back muscles.
Relax your shoulders and open your chest with a classic yoga stretch. Stand with right arm raised over your head, bend arm so elbow is pointing upward and right hand reaches behind your head. Extend left arm sideways, then lower it and reach upward behind your back; try to touch fingers together (as shown). Repeat stretch with left arm on top.
Your body’s response to stress may cause it to divert blood away from normal digestive processes in the abdomen to large muscle groups elsewhere. The result? An upset tummy, painful bloating, diarrhea, constipation, even irritable bowel syndrome, women’s-health specialist Anne Nedrow, MD, says.
Placing a hot-water bottle on top of your belly may relax the smooth-muscle tissue of the bowel and eliminate pain, distention, or bloating. Eating more foods with plenty of fiber—such as a handful of almonds, peanuts or soy nuts—may also help.
We walk too fast, we pace, we cram our feet into high heels and shoes a size too small—no wonder 8 out of 10 women say their feet hurt. The really bad news: Sore feet make it harder to stand up to the stresses attacking the rest of your body.
In the right hands (a reflexologist’s, to be exact), a foot rub can actually help heal a variety of stress disorders, from migraines to back pain, research shows. Rub under the base of the toes to calm the head, the ball of the foot to relax the chest, and the middle of the foot to soothe the abdominal area.