By: Jean Johnson for Uterus1
“I’ve seen my irritability go way down since I started taking St. John’s Wort. These days I’m actually enjoying life for the first time, and I’m much more pleasant than I used to be,” said May Smith of Portland, Oregon. “Before, I just thought I was a witch just like my mother before me and her mother before her. Now I realize there’s a bit more to stress and a person’s ability to cope with it. Here all those years I just thought I had a mean streak and was a bad person from a bad family.”
| Stress reducers adapted from the The National Women’s Health Information Center:|
Relax– find the way that works for you – deep breathing, shoulder rolls, smelling the flowers, really listening to a piece of music, reclining with a lavender bag or cucumber slices over the eyes.
Make time for yourself– try five minutes a day for starters – things like just going outside or picking up the paper or a magazine.
Sleep – seven to nine hours is a good rule of thumb.
Eat right – it’s everywhere in the literature – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and fish, olive oil is the ticket.
Get moving – and watch your endorphins soar – turn the music up loud and dance.
Talk to friends – a good conversation never goes out of vogue and often in the process of sharing problems, people discover they are not alone.
Get professional help if you need it – various therapies are available from talk to art, and medications can also help ease stress when appropriate.
Smith says that it probably isn’t only the St. John’s Wort that has helped her. She says she has started exercising, eating better, getting enough sleep, and not taking on more than she can reasonably commit to. Still, the message is that instead of having something inherently wrong with her, Smith has made the liberating discovery that she had symptoms of stress that she can now manage.
Women’s Predisposition to Stress
“Does Not Play Well With Others.” If a t-shirt with this slogan on it might – at least on some occasions – be more appropriate for you than you wished, here’s a thought from historian and tenured professor of Women’s Studies at Washington State University, Susan Armitage.
“In many instances, women simply haven’t had the opportunities to develop social skills the way men have. During the pioneer era, for example, the men regularly cooperated because they had to in order to manage the heavy wagons and stock,” Armitage said.
“Conversely, the women were isolated in their own wagons and at night around their own cooking fires. Even when sisters were traveling in the same wagon trains, they found time to be together highly limited because their evening hours were so consumed by solitary tasks at their own home fires.”
“So it’s not that women are inherently uncooperative and irritable,” concluded Armitage. “They simply have not had the opportunities over the generations to develop these skills like men have. Also, living in a patriarchal society the way we do, women have particularly difficult times getting themselves and their needs taken seriously. Men and their problems command great clout for the most part – even three decades after the feminist movement.”
Drawing from Armitage’s remarks that women not only have to contend with high stress levels, they also have to insist that their problems be taken seriously, leads us to professor of psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and chief psychiatrist at New York’s Veteran’s Administration. Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D.’s insights.
In the process of explaining that contemporary society has no less of a deck stacked against women than was present in the mid-1800s, she also implies that not only do men learn to cooperate by working together, they also develop social support systems critical to good mental health. Finally Yehuda points out that the stress men experience tends to be acute in nature as opposed to the ongoing, aggravating types of stress that are more common to women.
“It’s not necessarily true that women don’t cope as well. It’s just that they have so much more to cope with. Their capacity for tolerating stress may even be greater than men’s,” said Yehuda. “It’s just that they’re dealing with so many more things that they become worn out from it more visibly and sooner.”
“I think that the kinds of things that women are exposed to end to be in more of a chronic or repeated nature. Men go to war and are exposed to combat stress. Men are exposed to more acts of random physical violence. The kinds of interpersonal violence that women are exposed to tend to be in domestic situations, by, unfortunately, parents or other family members, and they tend not to be one-shot deals. The wear-and-tear that comes from these longer relationships can be quite devastating.”
May Smith says Yehuda’s remarks match her experiences. “My mother was a witch the whole time I was growing up, and my father was into his drinking and partying. They never did beat us kids, but he ignored us and she yelled and screamed at us. We all grew pretty unhappy and thinking we were bad people.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Despite common perceptions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not a condition reserved exclusively for war veterans, rape victims or others who have experienced grave physical harm. Rather PTSD can arise from any prolonged period of stress over which an individual has no perceived means of escape. This includes verbal abuse during childhood in which a bullying adult or peer causes repeated violation of boundaries, betrayal, rejection or confusion. The result of these types of experiences is a lack of control and feelings of helplessness.
The legacy of these early in life violations is often emotional numbness, depression, anxiety, irritability, outbursts of anger, and sleep disturbances – either too little or too much.
More, although most people who are exposed to trauma as adults might have symptoms of PTSD for a relatively brief period following the event, some (including those who already have childhood histories) will develop chronic forms of PTSD that can persist throughout life.
Why A History of Stress Causes Vulnerability
Whether a person has PTSD or not, it is critical to realize that once people are exposed to stress-producing situations, they can become hyper-alert to future events. That means that situations that more healthy individuals might not even notice, are significant to those with histories of verbal or physical abuse. What others don’t even notice, people who are carrying heavy loads of stress will interpret as major offenses. Even as this mechanism is the body’s way of protecting itself, it also causes problems in that people with histories of stress are more vulnerable to daily ups and downs than others might be.
Managing Stress (If You’re Not a Yogi in a Cave)
Whatever the level and extent of stress, one thing is certain: only yogis hanging out in Himalayan caves far from the work-a-day world of families and traffic and jobs have a fair shot at freeing themselves from it. For the rest of us, stress is part of the package – the cost of modernity – the price of admission to 21st century.
Consequently, the best we can hope for is learning how to manage stress effectively. While that might seem like just one more thing to do, as May Smith’s story at the beginning of this article shows, it’s really just a matter of learning how to take care of ourselves. How to put our own health and welfare right up top on our to-do lists. Clearly it belongs there, since if our mental and physical health deteriorates, the rest of the list will not get done very well if at all. Conversely, if we do take the time to run a cleaner machine, we’ll find we have more energy than we ever thought possible.
“That’s true,” said Smith. “I always used to wonder how people fit all the things they did into their lives. Now I see that my exercise only takes 30minutes to an hour, but the payback is huge. I don’t get as tired or want to eat too much of the wrong kind of foods. And I don’t sleep as long as I used to either. When I was so stressed out and feeling all dull and down, I’d sleep at least 12 hours a night when I could which was most of the time. Now I still do have a long night now and then, but mostly I’m right around eight or nine.”
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