As a life and career coach, I work primarily with women. This is neither accidental nor arbitrary: Women, as a whole, are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety.
Blame our ancestors: As far back as the hunting and gathering days, women were in charge of countless tasks while men were out hunting for food. We learned how to multitask—and fast.
The demands that are placed on us are varied and complex, from the fundamental (nursing a child) to the more nebulous (keeping a close eye on the family’s emotional temperature to prevent the synonym of a fire). By and large, women are predisposed to be sensitive to others’ anxiety, particularly—and foremost—their children’s. A sick toddler or a disgruntled teen? Mom is the one who feels it in her skin and bones.
With the attention women place on nonverbal cues while also managing a career, a home (which is a career of its own), a child’s life, and, oftentimes, a marriage, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of women report feeling perpetually stressed.
The stress of quite literally operating as anxiety-absorbing sponges haunts us. We wake up frantically worrying if we covered the bases the day before, if our husband will make it to work on time, if our son is ready for his algebra test. We go to bed tense and exhausted, concerned that we haven’t ticked off enough on our insurmountable to do list while worrying that our teenage daughter didn’t have enough to eat for dinner (never mind the pile of laundry to be completed, the 23 emails waiting for a response, and our mother’s odd tone on the phone). By definition, we are a gender with too much on our already-full plates.
When I was raising my own daughter, work was close to the end of the list on my litany of ever-present worries. Before having her, life seemed like a breeze even though I did hold a highly responsible position at a famous tech company. Life wasn’t easy, per se, but there’s surely something to be said about having to care for only one human being. When she came along, the schedule I’d known became little more than a distant, beloved memory.
Not particularly trained to stay on task, I ran amok like a chicken with its head cut off, bouncing between fear and paranoia to total, helpless exhaustion. Going to work after taking care of her? What a nightmare! I’d get to the office already tired from our morning routine, then bumble through my day in milk-stained terror, certain she wasn’t okay without me while convinced I wasn’t doing a good job.
And I wasn’t. My pre-baby job was an infant in its own right, requiring all of my time, energy, and care. I switched to a less stressful but also less lucrative position, but the anxiety of making only a fraction of what I once did—coupled with anxiety over my daughter’s well-being, higher bills, and intellectual monotony—weighed on me even more.
Through this frantic, vicious cycle I bounced, never feeling right, never feeling fulfilled, always feeling anxious. When it ended in a tragedy, I was brought back to ground zero. I was forced to resign myself the imperative necessity of having to create my life from scratch, only this time in a much different way.
In the fifteen-plus years since then, I’ve studied how to be of this world but not a product of it. Sound confusing? Let me explain: I learned and cultivated a way to partake in life’s happenings—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly—but not be chewed up and spit out by them as I had before. Along the way, I discovered how to be more centered in myself to navigate those anxiety-inducing forces that are largely outside of our control—and are almost always at work, despite our best efforts.
Sensitive and stressed and in desperate need of a breather? Here are 7 ways to handle stress, no matter if you’re the hunter or the gatherer, both, or somewhere in between:
Just Breathe. I know you’ve heard it a million times before and are sick of it just about now. But heed this ubiquitous advice: By deepening your inhalations and exhalations, and by focusing solely on the breath, your central nervous system will respond in kind. It triggers the release of certain hormones that encourage relaxation. The benefits of mindfulness meditation—a practice that zeroes in on your breath—is best felt after a good twenty minutes. Lacking that (a dearth of time, after all, is one of our biggest stressors), even a few minutes of breathing purposefully creates a notable difference. It offers peace and a strengthened understanding of that which occurs beyond the frontal cortex, a place where the beta waves reside. If you’re too amped up to close your eyes, concentrate on your breathing as you perform mindless chores.
Your life, that is—although it probably wouldn’t hurt to organize your closet too. In a practical sense, it means asking yourself what is absolutely necessary and what can be left for another time or abandoned altogether. Sure, belonging to a networking group might sound great in theory, but if it’s edging into what little time you have with your husband and causes more stress than happiness, what’s the point? While it’s difficult to say no or to let things go—women are hardwired to feel guilty on top of wanting to help and cooperate—I would need three times the amount of time, stamina, and focus if I said yes to every invitation or self-imposed must that spins in my mind. Easing up on your commitments and perfectionism gives you a few spare minutes to yourself—which is absolutely critical when it comes to self-care.
Leave Others to Their Own Drama. This is a challenging rule to impose when you live in a place where the cultural or familial norm is to dedicate part of your time to Other People’s Issues. If the merchant where you buy your food wants to take fifteen minutes to talk about her neighbor who suffered a minor injury, or if your fair-weather friend wants to discuss, at length, another date gone bad, be bold and truthful: Tell them that you’re pressed for time but would love to catch up when you both can. Believe it or not, even the most minor, idle chat will generate more internal stress by virtue of it creating more noise in your already-jumbled head.
Inquire Within. Anxiety is amplified when we fail to listen to our bodies—or our intuition. In the frenetically-paced modern world, we seem to be programmed to ignore the call of nature, often foregoing rest and nutrition to finish that email, finalize that report, mop that floor. Over time, ignoring the basics erodes our health; whittled down, even the smallest upset seems huge. Likewise, when we go against what we know in our heart to be true—whether it’s accepting extra work that we know we can’t handle, or letting our teenager go out with friends we don’t trust—we experience waves of panic, even if we can’t quite identify the root. Listen more and you’ll fight less—with yourself, and with the world at large.
Say Ohm. I’m a keen proponent of yoga, but I’m also suggesting that you learn some of the basic principles of Buddhism. From living in the present moment to releasing your attachment to attaining external signs of success (a major source of anxiety for many right there), this ancient religion acts like a contemporary roadmap to resilience and internal tranquility. Spiritual newbies: Check out the revered Dr. Rick Hanson’s Just One Thing. It’s a smart, gentle crash course in adopting a Buddhist’s calm, centered mind.
Be Authentic. Much like the consequences of failing to listen to our intuition, ignoring our authentic selves can lead to a string of problems—and sizable stress. So much of what we do is geared towards getting others’ approval, an innate desire that ties into our hardwired need to feel a sense of belonging. But when we operate only from a fear of being ousted, we fail to see the bigger picture—of the world, yes, but even more importantly of ourselves. Be genuine in your words and actions, and the halo of integrity you’ll inadvertently create will attract people who are deserving of your love and attention.
While this could easily fall under what it means to inquire within, exercise warrants its own section, as it is just that—something that needs to be practiced. Heaps of research have shown that not exercising leads to more stress. As journalist Benna Crawford puts it, “Aerobic capacity and strength aren’t just fitness goals; they are measures of your mental health and predictors of your ability to enjoy life,” going on to point out the inextricable link between an absence of sweat sessions and stress, depression, and cognitive decline. You may not have a whole hour to spend on the treadmill or in a pilates class, but even a walk around the neighborhood or a few quick plank poses can clear your mind of those sticky, anxiety-filled cobwebs. Think of it as training for every aspect of your life. Now go enjoy it, and leave your anxiety in the backseat.