Let’s face it: we all face really difficult things in our lives from time to time. From personal stressors to global factors, certain seasons just feel heavy. Many of us are feeling pressure these days, whether it’s with our health, our finances, our relationships, or the state of things as a whole. In general, studies show that most of us are stressed out these days. 61% of Americans say their stress is at its highest point ever this year. Here’s the truth: stress is inevitable, but we aren’t helpless. I want to help you find tools that actually help you cope with stressful seasons whenever they arrive.
Our bodies are actually designed to handle acute, or short-term, stress. Our muscles tense when we feel the impact of a fall or hit to help us avoid pain or injury. Our adrenaline increases in dangerous situations to keep us alert. As women, our hormones, joints, and even organs shift throughout pregnancy to help our babies grow. All of these situations are “stressful,” but our bodies respond as they should.
However, when faced with perpetual or chronic stress, these responses that are meant to help us can actually begin to cause problems. When our muscles remain tense or tight for too long, we can experience chronic pain, poor alignment, and even headaches and other stress-related disorders. When our stress hormones are elevated for seasons rather than seconds, we can experience imbalances that affect our entire bodies. Extended stress can also cause issues for our hearts, our lungs, and our GI system. Long story short, we don’t want long term stress on our bodies!
As a pelvic floor physical therapist, I’ve seen firsthand how stress can negatively affect our bodies. The pelvic floor is a powerhouse. Among other things, it helps your body maintain urinary and bowel function, keeps the proper intra-abdominal pressure for many vital organs, and supports the added weight and volume of a baby during pregnancy.
Your pelvic floor is composed of muscles, and they can hold tension and tightness just like any other muscle group in the body. When your pelvic floor is overactive for a prolonged period of time, you can experience pelvic pain, urinary incontinence (categorized as urge or stress), fecal incontinence, constipation, pain during sex, or even pain in nearby areas (like your hips, back, or abdomen). If you’ve experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction, a pelvic floor PT can absolutely help!
Nobody wants long term stress in their lives — but when it arrives, we should be prepared with some strategies that minimize its effects. These 8 tips are backed by science and proven to help us regulate our brains and bodies when times get tough.
Have you ever felt the need to let out a long exhale in the middle of a difficult day? Science says you actually should! When you structure your breaths, you can improve your mood and reduce your respiratory rate — a brain and body boost that’s absolutely essential when stressful moments arise. Controlled breathwork is great for stress management, and it’s also a great way to aid overall well-being, so there’s never a bad time to try this!
Simply put, cyclic sighing is a three step process. First, inhale slowly through your nose. Pause when your lungs are comfortably full, then take a second inhale to really expand your lungs. Finally, exhale slowly through the mouth for as long as you can. Practicing cyclic sighing for just five minutes per day has been proven to be effective in managing stress.
We’ve all heard this one before, but it’s not just an “old wives’ tale”! Studies have shown that increased physical activity levels actually lower the negative effects of stress on the body and introduce positive effects. To get in adequate movement each week, aim for at least 150 minutes of activity, spread over at least 3 days.
Moving your body doesn’t mean you have to train for a marathon or join a body-building competition. Keep it simple with strength training and cardio that works for your current fitness level. If you’re pregnant, my Movement Through Pregnancy program was designed to help you stay active and strong through each trimester. And if you’ve just welcomed your baby to the world, my Movement Through Early Postpartum course provides daily movement that helps you heal from delivery, restore your core and pelvic floor, and understand your postpartum body.
When you’re stressed, it’s easy to want to reach for the treats — but sugar could actually be making your stress even worse. I’m definitely not against a yummy snack, especially on hard days, but keeping your sugar intake below 24g per day is a good rule of thumb.
Stress and hormones are inextricably linked, and sugar affects hormonal health in a huge way. High sugar intake, especially over time, can cause imbalances in your insulin, estrogen, and testosterone levels, which can lead to a whole slew of other issues in your body. Huberman Lab is one of my favorite health resources, and this podcast episode about optimizing female hormone health is a wealth of information if you want to take a deeper dive!
Sleep deprivation is one of the most common — and most significant — stressors in our lives. Without adequate rest, you’ll feel the effects in your brain, your mood, and your body. Aim for 7-9 hours a night, every night. (If you’re a new mom, I can feel you rolling your eyes. The good news: you’ll still get lots of added benefits if you can sneak those 7-9 hours in throughout the day instead of straight through the night!)When stress strikes, it can be hard to fall asleep. If you need help getting enough rest, magnesium is an excellent sleep aid! It’s most commonly purchased in gummy or powder form, and chewing a gummy before bed or mixing it into your nightly tea or water can truly make a difference.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that serves a variety of important purposes in the body. When cortisol is dysregulated, it can be hard to reduce stress or sleep well. Thankfully, your body and nature can work together to keep your cortisol levels right where they should be, and all you need to do is step outside when you wake up. Aim for 5-10 minutes on sunny days and 10-20 minutes on overcast days. Take a short walk down the street, or just stand in your yard or on your patio and let the sunlight soak in! Do this right when you wake up, or as soon as you’re able, and your body will be on the right track for the rest of the day.
Sounds too good to be true? I promise it’s not! Laughing provides a host of evidence-backed benefits, from releasing happy hormones into your system to improving circulation as you take in more oxygen-rich air. If you’re in the postpartum days, everything may feel overwhelming. Take a few minutes to call a friend who can make you laugh, turn on a comedy podcast, or rewatch an episode of your favorite show. It really does make a difference!
There are so many ways technology can make our lives easier — and so many reasons to put it away more often. The light from screens can disrupt our sleep patterns and cortisol levels, and screen use releases dopamine, which contributes to phone addiction. Scrolling through social media can even be a stressor all on its own! To regulate your sleep and your stress levels, put your phone down, especially right before falling asleep.
A good cup of coffee is one of life’s delights — but if you’re relying on caffeine to get you through every day, you might be doing your hormones more harm than good. Caffeine stays in your system for a long time, and it can contribute to anxiety and sleeplessness. If you’re perpetually tired, try to get more rest in the evenings and find ways to support your hormone health throughout the day. This will keep you balanced and serve you well in the long run (and of course, you can still enjoy your coffee when you want a freshly brewed cup).
These 8 tips may seem simple, but I promise they’re powerful in reducing stress and improving your brain and body function in everyday life! If you want more tips on everyday wellness, pelvic health, and pregnancy and postpartum life, I’m here to help. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter, The Hughes News, for valuable info, product links, and stories that help you feel less alone as a woman and a mom. See you in your inbox!