Expert Q&A: How to manage stress
Women, especially, feel a lot of chronic stress. A psychotherapist gives us some perspective about how to manage stress.
Stress is a part of everyday life. Statistically, women are 28 percent more likely to be stressed than men. So how do we deal with everything on our plate and reduce stress? The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt‘s Michelle Foote-Pearce, DMin, LPC-MHSP, shares some insights about how to manage stress and self-care.
Question: What do you do here at Osher?
Answer: I am a psychotherapist. I counsel people about stress reduction, and direct our mindfulness and outreach programs.
Question: When it comes to women and stress, what are the most common stressors you hear about in your practice?
Answer: Externally imposed stressors we have are all the demands placed on women, our time and our sense of responsibility. We try to meet all those demands and have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Then, we also have this internally imposed stressor of wanting to do everything really well, wanting to have our house clean and look nicely decorated, taking care of our children, meeting our spouse’s needs and maybe even caring for our parents. Those are a lot of demands, and we put a lot on ourselves when we think we have to do it all perfectly.
Question: How do you cope? How do you not always feel overwhelmed and stretched too thin?
Answer: Making a list of all the things that you need to do is a great example of why it feels so stressful. Each day we have all the things we need to do, and we hold that in our mind. Our body intuitively knows, “I can’t do all those things at once.” Our body goes into this physiologic stress response. We have this mental energy that we’re consuming by always thinking about all the things that we have to do and feeling that pressure, and then the physiologic stress that happens when we’re thinking about all of those things. One of the keys is to be realistic about what we can get done now. Do one thing at a time and engage with it. Maybe do our to-do list in the beginning of the day, then just check back periodically, but don’t think about everything that we have on our plates constantly. Be present and intentional.
Question: Is there a such thing as multitasking? Should we not have more than three things?
Answer: The reality is that we talk about multitasking. Moms, in particular, talk about multitasking because we’re cooking dinner, watching the children and maybe helping Sally with homework. In reality, our brain does not multitask. We flit back and forth. We have less brain efficiency when we’re flitting back and forth. We have to do that sometimes when we’re cooking dinner and taking care of the kids. If we’re focused at work and we’re trying to multitask, that puts a lot of stress on the brain.
Question: What other stress relievers would you say are useful?
Answer: Mindfulness is a way to be in the present moment, aware of everything that’s going on with us, internally and externally — if we can do this with acceptance and kindness. Whether we’re feeling stressed, sick or whatever we’re dealing with, if we can just recognize, “Oh, I’ve got a lot on my plate today.” Then, give ourselves a little kindness. Ask, “Are we treating ourselves the way we would want to treat our loved ones?” That helps us to take a breath and calm down. Our body starts to unwind, and that intensity we feel when we think about everything we have to do softens. Then, the good hormones can start going through our bloodstream, and we can have that sense of well-being and a little warm peace. It takes 30 seconds. Let me just hit the pause button, be kind to myself and then think about what’s the next things that I need to do right now.
Question: As a parent, why is important for children to see how you manage stress? What does it show them?
Answer: The idea that we are supposed to be this perfect mom is not good role modeling for our children. We’re human beings. We have emotions. We make mistakes. Role modeling in a really helpful way for our kids is about showing what it’s like to be human. Mom makes mistakes. She doesn’t do things perfectly, but she’s resilient. She can problem solve. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to move ahead, and we’re going to do it with kindness to ourselves and others.
Question: Is there ever a time when stress is good or necessary or helpful in any way?
Answer: Yes. Technically, stress is a physiologic response of our body. Stressors are the things that make us feel stressed. Our body needs stress to optimally operate, but it likes it in only short bursts. The chronic stress is the (harmful) thing. (Stress) engages a lot of the hormones that keep us active and alert … For example, for an exam or a work project, you want to be optimally stressed because that helps you focus and be engaged. It’s the chronic, long-term stress that really puts strain on our body, and makes us sick and have mood issues and insomnia.
Question: If you feel chronically stressed, is that a sign that you should seek professional help?
Answer: Yes, because it’s not necessary. No matter what your responsibilities are, there are ways for you to find a lifestyle that works for you – one that ensures more happiness and well-being. Chronically, stress makes people pretty miserable.
Question: What does self-care mean to you? What are the different ways that that plays out in women’s lives?
Answer: What self-care is not is trying to meet the ideal and that perfection. It’s really about: What do I need to take care of myself at this stage of my life with this level of stress? Maybe it’s “I really need to eat more healthfully and simply.” Maybe it’s “I’m not getting enough sleep.” There are so many ways we can take care of ourselves, but it’s about listening to yourself, identifying what you need and being intentional about it. What’s keeping you engaged in life? What makes you feel connected? What makes you feel alive and energized? If we’re not filling ourselves up, then we’re getting depleted more and more and we’re not going to have that energy and that presence to give to our children or our job. We’re not going to be optimally functioning.
Question: What if someone doesn’t know where to start with self-care? How do you start?
Answer: I usually ask people, “What’s the thing that you feel the most stressed about? What’s depleting you the most?” Let’s start there. What’s the hardest thing for you? People usually know what that hardest thing is, and we start there with baby steps. Then we begin to shift that and can tackle the other things. We’re not going to do everything at once because that’s going to be more stressful.
Question: If a woman is looking for professional guidance, how can counseling services or things offered at Osher help her?
Answer: We have a team-based approach here. First, a nurse practitioner or a physician would talk with that person and do a whole-person assessment. You’re really getting a sense of not only what’s hard for you, but also what’s going on with your body and your mind? Then, they will actually help you come up with a plan. It could be a sequenced, let’s-do-this-first plan, but it’s always based on what’s most important to you. What’s consistent with your values? What drives you in your life? Then, from there, it might be mindfulness classes, a way to be more present and less critical of and kinder to yourself. It might be yoga or massage. Some way to reconnect with and help your body calm, soothe and feel more relaxed. Or acupuncture. Any of those can be helpful as long-term healing self-care practices.
The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt provides health care designed around your whole health: mind, body and spirit. The center cares for people with chronic pain and other ongoing health challenges. Call 615-343-1554 for an appointment.