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Chronic Stress and Peri-menopause

Updated: May 22, 2023

Stress can be defined as any kind of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action Long term chronic stress plays havoc on all of our body's systems. During our peri transitional years (in our 40's and 50's ) our ability to cope with stress, both physically and mentally, is so important in achieving a healthy menopause and post-menopause life.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as any kind of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action. In 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a 4-month survey. It is estimated that more than half of Australians (59% or 14.5 million people) experienced at least one personal stressor in the preceding 12 months

Different types of stressors include:

• Financial • Psychological

• Family • Work

• Work/life balance • Loss of a loved one

• Life commitments • Illness

• Parenting pressure • Relationships

• World events • Grief

• Traumatic events • Moving house

• Relationship breakdowns • Navigating difficult relationships or situations

• Change in circumstances

In 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a 4-month survey. It is estimated that more than half of Australians (59% or 14.5 million people) experienced at least one personal stressor in the preceding 12 months.

Stress isn’t inherently bad, it’s necessary to maintain homeostasis and safety. However prolonged and chronic stress is where the problem lies.

Chronic Stress and what it looks like

Chronic stress is a prolonged and constant feeling of stress that can affect your health negatively if it goes untreated. It can be caused by the everyday pressures of family and work or by traumatic situations.

When you experience stressors with such a frequency or intensity, the autonomic nervouse system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response regularly. You remain in a state of constant physiological stress.

This affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly. We were designed to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is steady over a long period of time. In order to begin managing chronic stress, it is important to understand what it is, what may be causing it, and how it affects the entire body.

Surprising causes of chronic stress:

Living or working in an environment with exposure to toxic products causes a stress response in the body – living on a busy road, near a highway or industrial area. Occupations such as hairdressing, mining, mechanic, painting, farming – these occupations are exposed to a large amount of toxins which can contribute to a stress response in the body, regardless of how the nervous system is doing.

Hormonal transitions, particularly peri-menopause can be an incredibly difficult time in womens’ lives. Hormonal fluctuations and crashes create anxiety, insomnia, hot flushes and irritability. These symptoms can also kick off a stress response in the body which will worsen the hormonal symptoms.

Signs of Chronic Stress

  • The inability to relax

  • Forgetfulness

  • Appetite changes

  • Freeze response

  • An increase in resting heart rate

  • Struggle with decision making

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Overwhelm

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Easily flustered

  • Fear and worry

  • Social anxiety

  • Elevated blood pressure

  • Irritable

  • Muscular tension

  • Jittery

  • Digestive upset

  • Loss of libido

  • Trouble with thought processing and sequencing

  • Rumination or an inability to let things go

Daily Strategies to Reduce Stress

  1. Calm Start to the Day: No phone or social media for the first 30 minutes after waking up. Use this quiet time to sip a cup of tea, meditate for 10 minutes or listen to a favourite song.

  2. Morning Sunlight: Our sleep hormone melatonin is optimised by natural light and sunshine exposure, particularly in the mornings. Aim for 15 minutes during low UV hours on sunny days and 25 minutes during low UV hours on cloudy days. This can help to regulate circadian rhythm and support melatonin production to improve sleep onset and quality. Natural light and sunshine in the morning can help to start your day on the right foot by increasing our feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

  3. Joy: What brings you joy? Write a list of five things that bring you joy – they don’t have to be big things. A simple cup of tea sipped in the sunshine, dancing in the kitchen, having a chat with your best friend, watering the garden, hugging the dog, watching the sun rise. Your homework is to incorporate three things from your list into each day. Where can you create pockets of joy in your day?

  4. Gentle Exercise: When our nervous system and adrenals are in survival mode, the last thing our body needs is intense exercise or heavy cardio. This kind of movement elicits the same kind of body responses as stress. A frazzled mind will not thrive with jangly music, complicated movements and intense strain. Slow body movement sends a message to the nervous system that all is well, and no danger is present. Slow doesn’t necessarily mean easy – some slow and strong options are pilates, yin yoga, strength training with weights, and hiking. These kinds of movements bring focus, intention, slower deeper breathing and a calmer headspace.

  5. Mindfulness: This simply means bringing your attention and focus to where you are in the world. A quick way to bring mindfulness to a moment is to list three things you can see, hear and smell. This practice engages your ‘practical brain’ and brings you into presence rather than being lost in swirling ‘emotional brain’. This is a handy tool when closing your eyes for meditation is not practical.

  6. Plant a herb garden: Planting and looking after a garden gives you a daily task of watering, weeding and tending soil. Watching something that you planted grow can bring a great sense of achievement, joy and peace. We live in a world that often feels as though it is on fast forward, growing things is a beautiful reminder that nature never hurries. Take a leaf out of nature's book and listen to the pace your nervous system needs to feel balanced. Slowing down is always a good idea.

  7. Reading: Reading is another form of mindfulness, however it deserves its own heading due to its multiple supportive benefits. Reading takes you out of your logic brain and engages the creative brain and imagination; you cannot dwell in this part of the brain and be anxious at the same time. Genres that are helpful during times of stress are stories of hope, light-hearted fiction or humorous stories. Save the hard-hitting crime thrillers for another time. Re-reading old favourite books is calming for the nervous system as you already know what is going to happen. The nervous system can switch its ‘surveillance’ mechanism off – this also applies to rewatching your favourite movies or series.

  8. Daily Interaction: Humans are social beings. We are hardwired for connection and any interaction is important. Not everyone lives close to their family so connecting with people in your community can create a ‘local family’ who look out for one another. This can foster a sense of safety and belonging. Some ideas to kick off new friendships is chatting to parents at school drop off and playgrounds, smiling at people in the street, a daily chat with your local barista, setting up playdates for the kids, join a local sporting club – as a player or support person, put your hand up to help with a fundraiser, hobbies, learn a new skill, sign up for a class or adopt a dog – they are the very best conversation starters!

  9. Meditation: Various studies show that a regular meditation practice not only improves our emotional outlook but also our body’s physiological markers of stress! Meditation can reduce cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides and inflammation markers.2,3 Ever lay down for savasana at the end of a yoga class and suddenly, your thoughts are so loud you can’t hear the meditation music? You are not bad at meditation, you are normal! Stress equals a very busy brain, expecting it to go from fifth gear down to first gear is too much of a leap. Try a guided meditation (just make sure you like the speaker's voice!) and find an option that works for you – there are plenty of apps and YouTube options available. Sometimes just sitting quietly with your eyes closed and taking 3 big deep breaths can do the trick. Meditation is a journey in and of itself, you don’t have to be perfect at it to reap the benefits.

  10. Grounding: Grounding or earthing - is the connection of the feet or body to the earth. We are electrical beings and prefer a ‘negative’ energy charge. Stale air, air conditioning, screens, Wi-Fi, fluorescent lighting, airborne pollutants, and some chemicals may emit a ‘positive’ charge. Mother Earth’s natural charge is also negative and can be used to stabilise human energy. This explains why you feel so good after a swim in the ocean or hiking by a creek. You can make use of this nifty gift each day by walking on the grass barefoot, wiggling your toes in the dirt, sitting under a tree in your local park, bringing some beautiful indoor plants to your space, taking a bath with Epsom salts and gardening.

  11. Evening Organisation: After dinner, spend 10 minutes organising lunch/es for the next day. Put lunch and all snacks into the lunchbox or fridge bag so all you need to do is take it out of the fridge when you’re leaving the next morning. Doing this at night frees up a surprising amount of time (and pressure!) in the mornings.

  12. Journalling: Our lives and brains can feel very ‘full’. Journalling can be a practical way to syphon some of the excess chatter out. Jotting down your thoughts can bring some structure, help identify patterns, clarify where you can take some action or simply just get the swirling thoughts out.

  13. Herbal Therapy: Herbs such as Passionflower, Kava, Licorice, Rehmannia, Valerian, Lemon Balm, Hops, Lavender, Withania, Magnolia and ziziphus are all supportive during times of stress.

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