I started working again this spring (the subject of a future blog post) and almost immediately found myself in a perfect storm of sick kids, tight deadlines, and lack of sleep. It was shockingly familiar.
I did what I usually do when it feels like the world is ending. I called my baby sister, Holly.
Lucky for me, Holly knows a few things about stress. Not only is she a single mom with four kids, she’s also a firefighter and a paramedic trained to handle all kinds of medical emergencies. (That’s her in all the pictures.) Holly is the closest thing I know to a real-life super hero.
I never planned to give advice on this blog, but many of you have told me you’re trying to manage symptoms of extreme stress yourselves. It seems like a waste not to share what I’ve learned. So I’m going to give you the whole spiel my sister gave me. Her advice was simple, the benefits were immediate, and it got me through a really bad week. It was also free, and required no medical intervention or dramatic life changes. But first…
A quick disclaimer!
I am not a medical professional, and this advice can’t take the place of what your doctor tells you. I am just a working mom who has wrestled with extreme stress and chronic exhaustion, over and over, for many years. I’m sharing you this advice because it worked for me. It might work for you, too.
Managing extreme stress starts with bowing to the fact that you are not some airy spirit or a walking brain, you are an animal. I mean that kindly, the way the poet Mary Oliver does when she talks about the “soft animal of your body.” Living in a body means we must respect the systems of that body. It doesn’t work to say, “I shouldn’t be this tired,” or “I should stop being upset about this.” You are tired. You are upset. You cannot merely think your way out of this.
Our bodies are incredibly complex, so this next part is an oversimplification. You may know some of this, but bear with me. It’s important.
There are two complementary parts of your nervous system, which have evolved over millions of years in the struggle for survival to keep our bodies in balance.
Your sympathetic nervous system mobilizes you for stressful situations–“fight or flight.” When our ancestors were running away from bears, their sympathetic nervous systems would kick in, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline that speed up many of the systems in the body.
Among other things, these hormones make your heart beat faster and increase muscle strength. Very handy when you’re running from a bear. Or saving someone from a burning building. Not so much when you’re about to give a big presentation, or you’re driving and the kids are screaming in the back seat. When people say their “nerves are shot” they don’t know how right they are. The ridiculous juggling act of working and parenting can put you in a perpetual state of fight or flight.
Your parasympathetic nervous system–what firefighters call “feed or breed”–has the opposite affect on your body. It slows the body down, making it possible to eat, sleep, make babies, and the other things that one does when not running for one’s life.
The key to managing extreme stress is understanding how to calm your sympathetic nervous system and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
My sister’s advice can be simplified into three words: Sweat, Eat, Sleep.
“When people say to sweat it out, they mean sweat it out,” Holly says. “You have to circulate those stress hormones out of your body.”
The best way to get rid of them is to work out really, really hard, she says.
I know, I know. You’re extremely tired. The last thing you want to do is exercise. But if you want to get rid of those chemicals, you have to work out. Hard.
“Really push yourself,” Holly says. “Run like you’re running from a bear.”
Unless you have bad knees, like me. In that case, you might want to bike or swim away from the bear. Aim for at least 20 or 30 minutes. If you belong to a gym, follow up with a few minutes in a hot tub or sauna to get a little extra sweating in.
After you’ve gotten rid of those stress hormones, the sympathetic nervous system is content. It’s done its job. It can back off a little.
Now is the time to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system: You need to eat.
Eating tells your body, It’s OK now. The bear is gone. You can come down from the tree, dear.
After all, you can’t be in life-threatening danger if you’re chewing. (Unless you’re eating one of these.)
Avoid the bad stuff: over-processed foods, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol, because they put an unnecessary load on your nervous system.
Raw food is good–perhaps because it requires more energy to digest, which is a nice, lazy way to absorb excess energy that you didn’t sweat out at the gym. I’m not a raw-foody, but I know I feel calmer and my energy is steadier when I eat it.
And here’s an extra special trick that took me a lifetime to learn: Eat small amounts throughout the day. Every time you eat, you send another reassuring message to your parasympathetic nervous system:
Coast still clear…No bears!
While you’re at it, drink tons of water, which will help flush out any lingering stress hormones. Many people are dehydrated without realizing it. Dehydration leads to physical and mental stress. Not sure if you’re drinking enough water? Read more on the Mayo clinic site.
Sleep, essential during normal times, is even more important in times of extreme stress. Sleep helps mend your body at the cellular level, lowers your blood pressure, and helps your brain process information from the day, among other things.
Hard exercise following by strategic eating will help prepare your body for sleep. Sometimes that’s not enough, and you need to try a more heavy-handed approach.
“When I’m having trouble winding down to sleep,” Holly says, “I actually tell myself, ‘There’s no bear trying to eat your children. Everyone is safe. You can rest now.’”
But that might not be enough when you’re stressed out, you’re breastfeeding, or your kids are sick. Extreme times call for a By-Any-Means-Necessary approach.
Here’s an example:
When my son was an infant, my sleep deprivation became severe. One night my husband took the baby downstairs and slept on the couch with him all night. I put in my purple earplugs, locked the bedroom door, and took a sleeping pill. When I woke up four delicious hours later, breasts painfully engorged with milk, I stumbled into the bathroom, pumped my milk and dumped it in the sink (because it was contaminated with the medication) then went back to sleep for another four hours. I was different person the next day. A happier, saner person.
There are many other things you can do to create what the experts call “good sleep hygiene.” Some of them are here, on the Stanford Sleep Clinic’s website.
These three simple concepts–Sweat, Eat, Sleep–won’t solve all your problems. They won’t make you less busy. They won’t make the U.S. less hostile to working families (my fellow Americans, even Haiti has paid maternity leave!). But they might help you back away from your edge on a particularly bad week.
There are a lot of other things I’ve tried that have helped. Maybe I’ll put them in a follow up post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. How do you manage extreme stress?
Photos by © 2010 Keith Brofsky All Rights Reserved