04 February 2009

Stress rehearsal

Stress has some surprising causes and effects. Here's how it can touch you, how to handle it when it does, and how four powerful women deal with it daily.

Stress has some surprising causes and effects. Here's how it can touch you, how to handle it when it does, and how four powerful women deal with it daily. By Lynne Gidish, Femina magazine.

You may think you're sussed when it comes to the ins and outs of stress – it's part of your daily lifestyle, after all. But there are a few things that may surprise you, says Dr Judy Jaye, training development officer for The Stress Clinic in Johannesburg.

1. It can be good for you
Not all stress is bad. Good stress, also called eustress, motivates you to get up in the morning and face the challenges of the day. It's that buzz that leaves you feeling invigorated when you meet a deadline or accomplish a challenging task. It can also save your life. When you feel threatened, adrenaline floods your body and your 'fight or flight' instinct kicks in, resulting in an intense urge to escape the situation.

2. It can increase your risk of disease
Recent research shows stress plays a role in triggering or worsening depression, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and in speeding up the progression of HIV/Aids. As many as 90% of visits to the doctor can be attributed to stress-related ailments. There's also a strong link to burnout, which is caused by chronic, prolonged exposure to stress. When left unchecked, stress can result in a debilitating disorder that leaves you feeling depressed, unable to cope with life on a daily basis, deprived of your identity and filled with a sense of emptiness and hopelessness.

3. It can affect your weight
Stress can trigger one of two responses that may make you gain or lose weight. Many people turn to food when they're stressed, resulting in comfort or binge eating. High-sugar, high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods are typical choices when you're under pressure, which is why so many people gain weight in stressful times. Other people have the opposite reaction to stress, either forgetting to eat or finding it hard to swallow any food at all – which results in stress-related weight loss.

4. It can make you ill – unless you use it
When you're under stress, your body is flooded with adrenaline to help you cope. Once the emergency or stressful time is over, however, it's important your body's relaxation response is activated so that everything can return to normal. Unfortunately we live with such high levels of stress, this often doesn't happen, resulting in a state of chronic stress – with too much cortisol, the stress hormone, floating around in the body. Over time, this erodes your immune system, which is why people often succumb to illness after ongoing stressful events such as renovating their homes or organising large events, such as weddings.

5. It's why you can't unwind during downtime
If you're lying awake at night, or at a loss about what to do with your weekends and holiday time, chances are your stress response is stuck in top gear. It's messing with your sleep patterns and creating havoc with your hormones, setting you up for disaster. You may be so permanently stressed, you've even forgotten how to unwind! But it's not all your own doing: today's highly competitive world tends to frown on 'idle hands', which is why you may feel restless or guilty when you take time off.

Here's how some leading ladies deal with stress:

Cape Town mayor and leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA)

"My days are very full and varied. I move from deadline to deadline, and face many different types of situations every day. This contributes to the excitement of my job but also adds to the stress. Over the years I've become used to pressure and stress: I actually enjoy it, most of the time. But, like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water, I often don't really feel how hot things have become.

"I feel really stressed if my children are going through a difficult time. I often feel helpless to resolve their problems, which is the worst kind of stress for me.

"I deal with stress by trying to face a problem head-on: defining it accurately, then working systematically to resolve it. Taking time off is the worst way of dealing with stress for me because I'm not solving the problem, I'm avoiding it.

"I have a loving and supportive family, excellent staff in both my offices and a good domestic helper. This combination is the greatest stress reducer. I have complete confidence in them to get things right. I can then deal with most problems that arise."

Founder and Director of investment company Wiphold

"The nature of my work involves lots of meetings and travelling. My day is structured into three parts: waking up at 4am to read all the papers, so that by the time I get to the office at 7am, I've absorbed all the day's business news – and the gossip! It helps that my PA is also an early starter and is at the office by 6.30am.

"From 8am to 5pm I prepare for and attend meetings. Then it's time for returning phone calls. I usually get to bed at 11pm. Gossiping with my family and friends is my favourite and cheapest way of destressing…paying it the same level of attention to detail as I do my work! My granddaughter Khaya, three, forms a big part of this gossip circle. My ultimate form of unwinding is going to Centane in the Eastern Cape to spend time at my ancestral home. It's in this part of the world that I always believe God and my late grandfather have a bigger plan for me. Of course, a glass of bubbly always helps!"

National Minister of Education

"I've been extremely busy for many years – so busy, I often forget to get stressed! I think you become more aware of stress if you stop to reflect on your work and daily life, but I hardly have time for such reflection.

"One of my responses to a hectic schedule is to find a quiet moment and take back some control. I have many ways of destressing – I usually read non-work-related material or call a friend and share my stress, hoping I'll be told a joke to take my mind off things. At other times I invite my girlfriends out for a meal.

'If I don't have a lot of time, I take off my shoes and walk around my office! Real destressing is a rare pedicure or a visit to my favourite hairdresser and, if time and funds allow, I take a short break and visit my favourite aunts-in-law – they spoil me terribly…and they never ask about my job!"

Acting Judge President of the Cape high court

"Being a judge is stressful by its very nature. There is often a perception that judges do mainly criminal work and their work is confined to court sittings. That is not so. Most of our work consists of civil matters, including commercial matters, matrimonial disputes and constitutional litigation.

"By far the largest part of a judge's work consists of chamber work, such as preparation, research, reading appeal records and writing judgements. Each case must be meticulously researched, as it will have a major impact on people's lives. In criminal matters your judgement may deprive an individual of his or her liberty – with the obvious knock-on effects for his or her family. In civil cases your judgement may cause financial ruin.

"To destress I go to the gym at 5am every morning. I also walk with my dog, and I play golf as often as I can. I love the outdoors and nature, which is where I find tranquillity. I also have a little granddaughter who fills me with love and peace, and makes me realise that I shouldn't stress too much about life; I am just passing through and my journey is nearing its end. I try to enjoy every day. Even the stressful ones."

(This is an edited version of a feature published in Femina magazine, January 2009. Get more fascinating views and interviews in the latest issue of Femina, on sale now.)

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