Physically, when under stress, the brain releases the fight-or-flight hormones norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol to mobilize your mind and body into action. Muscles tense, the heart pounds, breathing quickens, pupils dilate and blood sugar surges, providing a jolt of energy. That surge may help you swerve to avoid oncoming traffic, for instance. But when you are constantly bombarded with stressful events — and your body is on constant alert — the wear and tear can leave you vulnerable to fatigue, lowered immune function, and increased abdominal, or visceral, fat, which produces toxins that increase your chances of heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. This chronic inflammatory state can also contribute to cancers and other health problems.
For relief, we may befriend sugary, salty, processed foods that bring us comfort. But while these foods may make us feel good at the moment, we know they aren’t our friends and, in fact, can do us harm. This isn’t about body-shaming or suggesting that only a certain body mass index (BMI) is healthy. In fact, according to the BWHS, most of the 38,000-plus sisters who were surveyed said they loved their bodies. But many among us would also acknowledge that they’re carrying extra weight that could be a problem.
Here are seven ways to get started:
Get moving. According to the BWHS, “walking in 10-minute increments three times each day has the same benefit as a brisk 30-minute walk.” Try first walking at a moderate pace for 10 minutes, then walking briskly for 10 minutes, and finally walking at a moderate pace for 10 minutes. Pressed for time? See if high-intensity interval training is for you.
Breathe. Deep, rhythmic, mindful breathing can stimulate a relaxation response in your body, a state of deep rest that instantly decreases your heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension, according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS). One deep breathing technique from the AIS is the quieting response, a powerful combination of visualization and deep breathing known to stop acute stress in as little as six seconds.
Want to see how it works? Try it now:
- Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders, where most people hold their muscle tension.
- Imagine holes in the soles of your feet. As you breathe in, visualize hot air flowing in through these holes, moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen, and filling your lungs. Relax your muscles sequentially as the hot air moves through your body.
- When you exhale, reverse the process, so you envision hot air flowing out the same holes in your feet. Repeat whenever you need a dose of calm.
Create and strengthen boundaries. When we push ourselves beyond our capacity, we are merely coping instead of being conscious. Thanks to anthropologist Leith Mullings, that tendency to cope with and push through chronic stress has a name, Sojourner Syndrome. “We coined the term to express the combined effects and joint influence of race, class, and gender in structuring risk for African American women,” Mullings wrote in her study for the American Anthropological Association. To prevent yourself from falling into the Sojourner Syndrome, create healthy boundaries where you say “no” when you need to, and you don’t feel guilty about it.
Take a break from your newsfeed. You want to stay up-to-date, especially with the racial justice movement, COVID developments, and the presidential election. But watching viral videos of violence against Black people can cause stress, depression, and other trauma symptoms, such as mentally replaying events again and again. It’s important to remain aware and recognize when the news cycle may contribute to your sense of being overwhelmed or alarmed. Be conscious of how you consume media. Give yourself a fixed time to get updates. Disable news alerts on your devices. Balance a stream of negative news by reading or watching something that lifts your mood.
Eat — but eat well! Fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with grains and/or legumes, and a quarter with protein. Eat more whole, unprocessed and unpackaged foods. Avoid added salt and sugar and processed or cured meats. A poor diet contributes to the risk factors for heart disease and strokes, such as high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Swap out fruit for sweets or crispy veggies for crunchy, salty snacks. Cultivating a habit of eating quality foods will help sustain you as you age.
Seek emotional support. Whether it’s a professional therapist, your best girlfriends, your partner or pastor, or all of the above, make sure you have spaces where you can explore your worries and fears, as well as your hopes and dreams without judgment. Don’t try to push through it alone — every woman needs a self-care squad.
Love yourself! It’s the most wonderful, beautiful, and healthy thing you can do. Here’s a playlist that celebrates how special you are.
If you’re carrying extra weight, know that this is not a personal failure. There may be many contributing factors. The good news is that you have more power than you think to take back control of your health and life.
Robin D. Stone – Author, Sisters from AARP