Many of today’s moms feel overworked, overtired and often pushed over their limits.
Between hectic jobs, drop-offs, pick-ups, play dates, piano practices, after-school sports, and household to-dos, there’s little time left over to take care of themselves. This kind of stress can make women short tempered, forgetful, and completely exhausted. Feeling frazzled and burnt out 24/7 can lead to some serious damage, from your skin to the tips of your chromosomes.
Thea Singer, author of Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind, explains, “A lot of what is very stressful to women is wanting to be ‘Supermom’. We want to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. And then we always fall short.”
The stress of having too much to do, in too little time is constant for Atlanta mother of three, Julie Kuehnert. “I’m always being pulled in nine million different directions,” she said. “When you look at the day, and you know there is no way you can do all the things you want to do, you just get irritated.”
So what’s actually happening to your body when you’re feeling stressed nonstop? Cortisol, the primary hormone in humans from stress, starts wreaking havoc. “When a situation where stress is constant or comes and goes continuously is when we get into trouble because our organs are bathed in Cortisol,” Singer said.
Aside from long-term negative effects of higher and more prolonged levels of Cortisol (including high blood pressure and increased belly fat), extensive research from top scientists featured in Singer’s book delves deep into how chronic stress can actually accelerate aging.
In a nutshell, Singer explains, “In our cells we have chromosomes. On each chromosome lies our DNA. At the ends of chromosomes are these little caps, called telomeres that protect it, like the plastic ends of a shoelace that prevent it from fraying, and keep our DNA safe. Every time a cell divides — not all do, but skin and immune cells do — the telomeres get a little bit shorter. That’s why, in general, babies have longer telomeres than adults. This is what has led scientists to look at telomere length as a marker of aging: a molecular clock ticking off the lifespan of our cells. New research by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel shows that those who perceive themselves as being under the most stress have telomeres that are the equivalent of 10 years shorter than those who perceive themselves as being under the least stress.”
Not only can stress age you right down to your cells, studies show that people with chronic stress are at greater risk for cardiovascular, inflammatory and gastrointestinal diseases, obesity, and even higher mortality rates. According to Singer, when the telomeres have worn down so much the cell can no longer divide, it then goes into a resting state called senescence. “Even though senescent cells aren’t dividing, they are not quiescent; they sit there spewing out all that toxic stuff.”
Singer adds, “It goes beyond your hair turning gray and skin starting to sag. You are really doing a number on all systems of your body. It really puts you in harms way.”
Feeling stressed about stress? Don’t! There are lots of easy things you can do to reduce it, find balance and turn back the clock. Singer says it’s important to remember, “Circumstances do not define stress. What defines it is how we perceive it. We can alter our perceptions, so we can be in control of the level of stress we feel. If we’re sitting in that traffic jam, rather than tearing our hair out and shooting Cortisol through our veins, we can do deep diaphragmatic breathing.”
Even just taking a few minutes to breathe and decompress can make a big difference. Atlanta mom Julie sneaks in some peace and quiet when life gets hectic. “I give myself a ‘time out’ and go in my walk-in closet and shut the door,” she said. “That’s my private oasis. My kids know when I’m in there. If they come in, I’ll be like, ‘Nope not allowed!’”
Singer recommends changing your lifestyle with these stress-reduction strategies:
Studies show that aerobic exercises stress-proofs your brain. “If you are exercising for months, you may not feel the same stress because your brain is better able to deal with stressors,” Singer said.
A good night’s rest is crucial for stress-reduction. Running on fumes can make you short tempered, forgetful, and more likely to get sick. Seven hours of shut-eye per night is recommended. If you have trouble dozing into a deep sleep, stick to a sleep schedule so your body starts to anticipate bedtime. Be sure to go to sleep and wake up around the same time everyday. Another simple tip – design your bedroom for sleep. Make sure your bed is extra cozy, and keep your room quiet, dark and cool.
Don’t Seek Comfort in Food
A lot of women resort to emotional eating when they’re stressed. But “comfort foods” are a quick fix with long-lasting consequences, like a bigger pant size. Rather than seek solace in sweets, do something else that brings you pleasure. Go on a hike, see a movie with a friend, or get hooked on a creative hobby.
Much like the GPS system in your car, you can “recalculate” if you make a wrong turn or find your to-do list a bit off track. Shift your priorities to make life simpler. Don’t panic if the grocery store is packed, and you’re on a time crunch. Just pick up what you need for dinner that night. Don’t add angst by battling the crowds in an attempt to shop for the full week.
Singer adds, “Don’t go overboard. What you want to do is set realistic expectations for yourself. What really stresses us out is when we feel overwhelmed and out of control. Put yourself in the position where you are in control and making decisions.”
Lean on Your Friends
Social support from friends and family actually helps reduce your perception of stress. Singer’s book expands on research showing that people who cope by seeking social support have lower Cortisol levels throughout the day.
Change Your Relationship to Time
“You can’t alter time. It marches on. But you can change your relationship to it. It’s greater than saying, ‘I am going to leave early to get to work.’ Build in space to permit things to happen, like at traffic jam. It has a calming effect, not just for the drive, but for the whole day,” says Singer.
For more information on the science behind stress and it’s impact on aging, check out Thea’s book, Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind.
Jessica Solloway is a Washington, DC based writer and producer. From wedding planning to work, dating to dieting (and everything in between), she enjoys writing about lifestyle topics women want to know about. Jessica received her degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Check out her blog, The Savvy Mrs.