Everyone has stress in life. Without stress, of course, life would be nearly impossible. Stress gives you the boost you need to get things done. The problem is, for many people stress never goes away and becomes nonproductive. In the grand scheme of the human design, stress was intended to be a transitory experience, a cycle — a need generates pressure, action relieves the need, and the pressure goes away. That was the plan. What typically happens in today’s world is that the third element in the cycle never happens. The stress stays high because a new need immediately replaces the satisfied need. Or, you aren’t entirely able to satisfy the need, so it never quite goes away.

Recognition is a key aspect of controlling stress. One reason that stress controls your life is that you don’t recognize the stress factors in your life. They have become so much a part of your daily existence that, like gray hair or wrinkles, you don’t notice them until something forces a confrontation. The stress cycle is your mirror for these factors. Each time the stress cycle fails — you move right from one stress factor to another — this is like catching a glimpse of your gray hair as you pass by a reflective window. You don’t have to do anything about your gray — and you might even wear it proudly. But each time you catch a glimpse of a stress factor, you have an opportunity to change it.

Some studies suggest that medications used to treat depression, such as Prozac and Paxil, also relieve signs of menopause such as hot flashes in some women. Doctors aren’t sure why this is, but they believe it has to do with the relationship between serotonin and estrogen. Antidepressants such as Prozac increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. Estrogen seems to act as a chemical facilitator, further smoothing communication among neurons (brain cells). While much study is still needed to explore these connections, this treatment approach holds promise for women who cannot take HRT (hormone replacement therapy), such as those who have had or are at high risk for breast cancer.

A challenge for many women is the tendency to take on more and more and more. This reflects a woman’s nurturing nature, her desire and drive to care for and about the people who are important to her. This also generates unintended and often unobserved (dis)stress. Take a moment to think about everything that’s on your mental to-do list right now. How much of it is for you, and how much of it is for others? This is not to say that doing for others is wrong or harmful. It’s just a reminder to look at all that you do each day and see if it leaves you enough time and energy to care for and about you.

Calling Timeout

A timeout is as useful for 50-year-olds as it is for 5-year-olds. The principle is the same: Put some distance between the source and the reaction. The only difference is that no one is going to put you on timeout — you’ll need to do it yourself. Learn your warning signs and what stages of stress they signal. If you’re not clear on this, ask a trusted friend to give you some honest feedback. It’s hard to see yourself from the outside, as others see you. You’ll need to learn to identify the outward signs from within so that you can intercept your responses before the situation becomes overwhelming.

Lean on Your Support Network

This is a time to call on your friends and family for support and encouragement. Let those who are close to you know how you’re feeling and what they can do to help. Communication is especially important because your mood swings and erratic behavior may have your loved ones wanting to help but uncertain about how to approach you. When you approach them, this makes it easier for them to know what to do and when to do it. This can be a difficult step if you, like many women, have always been the strong one, the one others turn to when they need support and help. But it’s a necessary step — one attribute of strength is knowing when to call for reinforcements.

“It is my friends that have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.”

— Helen Keller

Lighten Your Load

If your work never seems to get done, maybe it’s time to examine your load. Just because you can multitask doesn’t mean that you have to or that you should. Many women pick up the pieces others drop — kids, spouses, co-workers — without passing off what’s already on their plates. Remember right brain/left brain dominance discussed in the previous chapter? If you’re right-brained — someone who thrives on ambiguity and innovation — you probably have too much to do and not enough time or energy to do it all. You can see the forest, but you come up short when it comes to seeing the trees.

Many communities have support groups where people can share their experiences and concerns. Look in the Yellow Pages under “Support Groups,” or search the Internet (enter keywords “support groups”). Local newspapers also often list the meeting times and locations of support groups.

Try a left-brain exercise (even if you are left-brained) to get a better look at the trees in your life’s forest. Take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Starting with when you get up in the morning, divide the paper into portions for each four-hour segment of your waking day. Write down everything — everything — that you typically do during each segment. For each item, write down how much time it takes to do if it’s the only thing you do. When you’re finished, add up all the times. Do you need 30 hours in your day to do everything on your list? If so, it’s time to pare down!

Okay, so you find that you make your lists, cut them in half, and still try to do it all on your own? Try asking yourself some prioritizing questions. Answer honestly!

  • Do you enjoy (yes, enjoy!) this task?
  • Can someone else do this task as easily (or, if not as easily, then, as effectively) as you can?
  • What is it about this task that you don’t want to give up?
  • Whose responsibility is this task really, anyway?
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