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, says David Rakel, MD, director of integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin, 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.
Photo: Karen Pearson
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 relaxationlike deep breathing or meditationcan 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.
Photo: Karen Pearson
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, says Susan Ciminelli, founder of Susan Ciminelli Day Spa in New York City. Also try slowly rubbing a dry loofah up your body, starting from the ankles. This helps blood circulate and is invigorating and calming, Ciminelli says.
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, integrative-medicine expert David Rakel, MD, says.
Massagefrom hot stones to ischemic-compression therapy, during which trigger points are probedcan help relax tight muscles in your neck or upper back, says Dr. Rakel. 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, Dr. Rakel says. 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. “There are wake-promoting regions of the brain that get stimulated by anxious thoughts,” says psychologist Stephanie Silberman, PhD, a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and author of The Insomnia Workbook. Too many restless nights, and your days will be shot—memory is impaired and you may feel more irritable and moody.
If stress is keeping you awake, practice “thought stopping,” says Silberman. "Picture an actual stop sign every time you start worrying."
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.
Photo: Karen Pearson
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. Add to that the fact that “some women overeat in times of stress,” says Los Angeles–based registered dietitian Deborah A. Klein, author of the forthcoming book The 200 Foods That Will Save Your Life. The stress-plus-increased-eating combo is like putting out a welcome mat for 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, says Robin Molella, MD, a preventive medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.
Laughing your way through shows like I Love Lucy or Saturday Night Live 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, Dr. Molella says.
Photo: Karen Pearson
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, says Jessica Bellofatto, owner of YogaShanti in Sag Harbor, N.Y. 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, says Dr. Nedrow. Eating more foods with plenty of fibersuch as a handful of almonds, peanuts or soy nuts, or a steamed artichoke with vinaigrette dressing—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, says reflexologist Mara Nicandro, director of Therapeutic Massage of Texas.