Stress is a fact of life. No matter how hard you wish or even try to live a stress-free life, you can’t escape it, especially now. And midlife and menopause are prime time for stress. While the idea of stress-free living is an illusion, it’s worth the effort to rein in your stress levels. One of the best ways to do that is to learn to roll with the stress by becoming more resilient.

When you think about everything going on during this time of life, it’s not surprising that you’re stressed out. You might be worried about paying for college and saving for retirement or caring for kids and aging parents. Menopause symptoms like mood swings, hot flashes, and sleepless nights add to your stress level and drain your resources to cope with it. You’re also more susceptible to some of life’s biggest stressors like the loss of loved ones, health issues, divorce, moving, or job loss during this stage of life.

How stress affects your body

Stress manifests itself throughout your body in multiple ways—tense muscles, headaches, stomach aches, sleep problems, even chest pain. But these are just the noticeable signs. Deep within your body, stress can damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to inflammation, and raise cholesterol and blood sugar levels, which over time can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, obesity, depression, and more. Stress can be so damaging that, in rare cases, a traumatic event like the death of a child has resulted in an immediate heart attack, a condition known as broken heart syndrome.

Stress—whether it’s a looming work deadline, traffic jam, family problems, or natural disaster—triggers your sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response, setting off a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Your body is ready for action. Unfortunately, in most cases, there’s no action or resolution. Instead, your body continues to pump out higher levels of stress hormones, leading to its harmful effects on your body.

Being resilient can help you turn off this stress response and turn on your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest response. In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic response calms you down and lowers stress hormones.

How to take control of stress

You may have heard the term resilience before, but it’s probably not what comes to mind when you’re juggling a work deadline and doctor appointments for your aging mother on top of a sleepless night due to hot flashes. But it can help. Resilience is a trait that is just starting to get talked about because research shows that it’s associated with feeling less depressed and more satisfied with your life. It may even help you to live longer.

You may think of resiliency when you hear stories about someone battling back from a near-fatal car accident or a young mother carrying on after the death of her spouse. Instead of letting the tragedy defeat them, they come out stronger. They’re resilient.

But being resilient isn’t just crucial for the big traumas in life. It can help you through the everyday lows and stress we all encounter, especially during menopause. And the more you use it, the stronger it will become—just like your muscles when you exercise them. Then when a life-altering tragedy hits, you’ll be even better able to handle it.

When you’re resilient, you don’t let stress suck you in. It’s still there, but instead of stewing in it, you acknowledge it, work through your feelings, seek support, and then problem solve and adapt. As a result, you feel more in control, and stress is less threatening to your body and mind.

Build resiliency to counteract stress and its adverse effects

While becoming more resilient can help you manage stress, managing stress can help you become more resilient. The two are intertwined, which is why some of the strategies to build resilience are similar to ones you might employ to reduce stress. Here are suggestions from Gingrich to help you manage stress and become more resilient.

Learn what stress feels like in your body. “This is an important part of understanding when stress is present and how to feel it coming on so you can build strategies to reduce it,” says Gingrich. Practicing a body scan can help you become more in touch with your body, noticing areas of tension and then working on releasing them.

Breathe deeply. Slow, rhythmic breathing can quiet your flight or fight response that stress triggers. Research has found that practicing deep breathing before bed improves sleep. Here are two breathing techniques to try. Even just a few deep breaths can be beneficial.

  • 1:2 Breathing - Breathe normally through your nose, counting each inhalation and exhalation. Gradually increase your exhalations, so they are twice as long as your inhalations. For example, inhale for four counts and exhale for eight. Choose a length that is comfortable for you.
  • Box breathing - This technique is used by Navy Seals to manage stress during dangerous missions. Imagine each step as the side of a box. Breath in through your nose for one to five counts. Hold for one to five counts. Breath out through your nose for one to five counts. Hold for one to five counts, and repeat.

Practice good posture. Roll your shoulders up, back, and down. Lift your head so your chin is parallel to the floor and stand or sit tall. An upright posture can help you feel more confident and boost your mood compared to a slumped posture, according to a study published in the journal Health Psychology.

Get moving. Any exercise, even a 15-minute walk, releases mood-boosting chemicals and counteracts some of the harmful effects of stress like keeping blood vessels flexible, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol levels. Vigorous exercise like a run or Spin class can be a great way to work off some stress hormones, bringing your body out of the fight or flight mode. Mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi can also have effects. A single 90-minute yoga session has been shown to lower levels of cortisol and enhance the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in rest and relaxation.

Listen to your favorite tunes. Research has linked listening to music with improved immune function and lower cortisol levels.

Connect with others. Whether you join a book club, grab lunch with a friend, attend religious services, or volunteer, do something with others regularly. “Maintaining social connection is shown again and again to enhance quality of life, health, and stress resiliency,” says Gingrich. “Even small moments of connection—like in the checkout line at the grocery store—are important.” Building connections now can also make it easier to ask for help when you need it—a tough thing for many of us to do.

Increase self-compassion. You’re probably supportive if a friend or loved one has messed up or is going through a tough time. But when you’re in that position, how do you treat yourself with that same love and kindness. Being compassionate toward yourself and others can help diffuse emotional situations. To help build your capacity for compassion, a key component of resiliency, try this Loving Kindness meditation, which has been proven in scientific studies to work.

Turn off the news. Limit or eliminate negative influences such as the news, social media, or even people. The negativity adds to stress levels and can leave you feeling less hopeful. 

Build self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to do something. For example, you might have high self-efficacy when it comes to your job but lower self-efficacy when parenting a teen. The higher your self-efficacy is, the more likely you are to succeed in that area. It’s also a key to being resilient. To build your self-efficacy, think about previous moments of resilience and strength. We know you have them. Reminding yourself of your abilities to weather a storm can help you view your current situation more positively.

Go out in nature. Communing with nature or "forest bathing," as the Japanese call it, has been shown to reduce stress hormones and ease feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and depression, all of which can help build resistance. Even if you simply go out into your backyard or sit in a city park, step away from all your electronics and spend more time outside for a mental health boost.

Experiencing new symptoms and changes to your body that often accompany menopause can add to your stress level.  Meeting with a doctor who specializes in menopause will provide you support through the menopause journey, and will help you devise a personalized plan to start feeling better now.

 

The information on the Gennev site is never meant to replace the care of a qualified medical professional.  Hormonal shifts throughout menopause can prompt a lot of changes in your body, and simply assuming something is “just menopause” can leave you vulnerable to other possible causes. Always consult with your physician or schedule an appointment with one of Gennev's telemedicine doctors before beginning any new treatment or therapy.

Michele Stanten

February 22, 2022

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