Identifying your body’s stress response
How does stress show up in your body? Maybe your shoulders creep toward your ears, your breath gets shallow, or your stomach feels fluttery (and not in a “I think I love you” way). Intellectually, you know you’re not in danger of being trampled by a mammoth. Yet your body is wired for a physical reaction to stress, priming itself to do whatever it takes to survive.
It’s relatively easy to clock the worry, irritability or sheer overwhelm of these stress responses, but we often forget the body is under siege, too.
How can stress affect a woman's body?
This physical manifestation of stress is the combined work of your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal system. It works like this:
- Your amygdala, which is sometimes referred to as your “lizard brain,” senses danger.
- It sends a stress signal to another part of your brain called the hypothalamus.
- Your hypothalamus then communicates with your adrenal system
- Your adrenals release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your body.
The stress hormones rev up your systems, sharpening your instincts and temporarily boosting your physical strength. Without a field to sprint or rock to scramble, that physiological burst may just end up in some trapped body tension or a racing heart.
And this power surge happens even before your conscious brain may clue into the emotions of fear, worry or stress.
The problem is that your survival instincts kick in whether you’re in actual danger or just freaking out over a really troubling email, kid meltdown or challenging comment from a co-worker. Superhuman speed and strength are great for jumping away from a poisonous snake or lifting a giant boulder. But the physical urges to fight, fly or freeze don’t do you any favors when you’re trying to do your taxes.
Stress after 40 is even more complex for women. Eventually, when there's a lot of ongoing stress, your body makes another hormonal choice. Because cortisol and progesterone come from the same source, the body will make more cortisol and less progesterone. This can create hormonal imbalances and even make perimenopausal symptoms worse.
The dangers of prolonged stress
Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life, and your body is equipped to regulate itself after a stressful time. But constant exposure to adrenaline and cortisol can exhaust you, just like nonstop physical exercise would. Plus, it just doesn’t feel good to be constantly stressed!
Ongoing stress without time and space to restore your body to calm takes a toll. Eventually you can develop health problems, including:
- Anxiety and depression
- Reproductive issues like irregular periods and ovulation
- Brain fog
- Sleep issues
- Intensified menopause symptoms
- High blood pressure
- Gut and digestive issues
Check that list again. Many of these symptoms are already perimenopausal symptoms. So stress can simply exacerbate and add to the changes your body is already going through.
If any of these stress symptoms sound familiar, know that you’re not alone. The changing hormones and increased demands that come from modern life—especially as a midlife woman— mean that many women experience elevated and even chronic stress during perimenopause. The good news is that you don’t have to stay stressed forever.
As Emily Nagoski made famous in her book Burnout, our stress cycles get resolved in real situations of physical danger — danger, followed by running, followed by stopping. This stopping effectively releases the body’s alert system and lets it know you’re out of danger and you are ok. The activity releases those hormones, relieving the body.
But when we just get more and more email pings, more text alerts and more kid freakouts with no release or “it’s over” signal in our bodies and minds, the stress simply builds. And problems may follow.
How to hack your nervous system
We’ve talked about the ways that your sympathetic nervous system can make you feel stressed:
- Upset stomach
- Tense muscles
- Shallow and rapid breath
- Trembling or shakiness
- Racing heart and pulse
…and more. But there’s another part of your nervous system that actively works to relax you and help restore calm. Enter the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
Think of a time when you felt utterly relaxed. Maybe you were getting a massage, lying on the beach or slowly waking up from a well-timed nap.
In moments of relaxation, your parasympathetic nervous system can:
- slow your heart rate
- deepen your breath
- promote feelings of calm and presence
- help you sleep
- promote healthy digestion (which means a lot if you’ve ever experienced constipation or diarrhea from prolonged stress)!
Not only does your parasympathetic nervous system help your body heal, activating it feels really good. And this effectively closes your stress loop, too.
The best part is that turning on your parasympathetic nervous system is incredibly easy. Here are some ways that you can hack your nervous system to promote relaxation:
- Deep breathing - This is a calm-down cliché for a reason. When you breathe deeply, especially with long exhalations, you signal to your nervous system that you are safe from danger and don’t need to be on alert.
TIP: Try a box breath: Breathe in for 4 counts, hold it for 4 counts, then breathe out for 8. Hold for four counts. Repeat.
- Laugh or cry - You’ve probably felt less stressed after a good laugh, but a good cry can also be soothing. There’s good evidence that crying for a few minutes signals to your parasympathetic nervous system that it’s time to heal and relax.
TIP: Feeling too numb or distracted to let it out? Hit youtube for a song or comedian that always gets tears or laughter going.
- Prioritize sleep - Most midlife women have sleep issues, so this is easier said than done.
TIP: Turn devices off 30 minutes before bed and try our Un-Worry tincture for a modern stress relief supplement. Our Wile Calm & Collected is a drinkable stress relief supplement that works before bed, tooo.
Move your body - Exercise increases parasympathetic nervous system activity and promotes endorphin production.
TIP: Many of us wish we were working out more than we are. A quick 25 jumping jacks, 10 pushups, one-song dance break or brisk walk around the block will release the tension and hormones and close that stress loop.
- Tune into your body - Paying attention to your 5 senses can signal to your body and brain that they’re safe to relax. The body scan meditation below is one of our favorite ways to notice and release stress that’s stored in the body.
Body Scan Meditation for Stress Relief
Because your body holds onto and manifests stress, paying attention to the physical sensations in your body can help you release tension and feel better. In a body scan meditation, you will slowly and methodically shift your attention across your entire body, one part at a time. The point isn’t to force relaxation — a forceful attitude will likely make you even more stressed. Instead, you’ll notice and breathe into the sensations of your whole body with acceptance and care.
Here’s how to do a body scan meditation:
- Get comfy. Lie down if possible, or sit with your feet on the floor and your arms resting.
- Deepen your breath. First just notice the way you’re breathing, then slow it down and send your inhalations deep into your stomach
- Send your focus to your feet. Notice any tension in your foot muscles, and if you like, wiggle your toes or roll your ankles to increase your awareness. Spend a few breaths noticing the way your feet feel and giving yourself permission to relax them.
- Repeat this process, moving your attention up your body little by little. Remember that when you encounter tension in different parts of your body, you don’t need to force it out. Awareness and the invitation to relax can go a long way.
- Your attention will inevitably wander at some point. That’s okay! When it does, take a mindful breath or two and redirect your focus on the sensations in your body.
You can modify your body scan meditation and make it your own. Some people prefer to start with the top of the head and move down, and some imagine cool water or warm light filling their bodies. Feel free to experiment and figure out a modification or visualization that works well for you.
How to Find the Right Stress Support from Wile
Never underestimate plant-powered stress relief! These Wile products are specifically formulated with phytoestrogens, adaptogens, nervines, and nutritive herbs to support grown women’s nervous systems during perimenopause.
For those with a lot of ongoing stress:
25% of us are prescribed daily antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds. Why not a daily herbal supplement to help boost your stress resilience? This is sustained daily support with a hormonal component to boost focus, reduce distraction and help steady hormones, too (because off-balance hormones can leave you feeling irritable and stressed as well). This addresses perimenopausal symptoms of stress and mood as well as helping situational stress.
For “trigger” moments:
Choose the tincture (multiple are ok to mix and match, too!) that aligns with your most common stress response:
For those who reach for the ice cream, chips or candy when under duress. And yes, there are a lot of us:
If you can’t sleep or you’re the type jittering yourself through that last crunch time with yet ANOTHER coffee (caffeine is the last thing you need):
- Physiology, Stress Reaction - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf
- The Longitudinal Relation of Stress during the Menopausal Transition to Fibrinogen Concentrations: Results from the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation
- Is crying a self-soothing behavior? - PMC
- Effects of Exercise Training on the Autonomic Nervous System with a Focus on Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidants Effects - PMC
- Understanding the stress response - Harvard Health
- Understanding the Body’s Stress Response
- Why and How to Do a Mental Body Scan for Stress Relief
- Beginner's Body Scan Meditation - Mindful
- Body Scan Meditation - Headspace
- Nagoski, Emily, and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle. Random House, 2019.
This article is intended for informational purposes and is not intended to replace a one-on-one medical consultation with a professional. Wile, Inc researches and shares information and advice from our own research and advisors. We encourage every woman to research, ask questions and speak to a trusted health care professional to make her own best decisions.