Stress, overwhelm and superwoman syndrome

Many of the clients I see in my clinic are suffering with superwoman syndrome, to varying degrees. I have seen it in men too – but it does seem to be more common in women who are trying to be everything to everyone, and doing everything for everyone. We can often be people pleasers and not always good at delegating – and this means that the buck stops with us. We just do everything ourselves, run ourselves ragged, and don’t always take the time to recharge our battery!

It’s become something of a badge of honour to be busy all day long. Rushing around from school runs to appointments to the gym to work, answering emails, organising kids’ parties, playdates, after school activities, – and at the same time producing some restaurant worthy and instagrammable dinner at the end of it. All while helping with homework, homeschooling, baking lots of homemade goodies and just trying to have and do it all.

The Stress response

Sounds exhausting! And it really is – especially from a physiological perspective. When we are on the go all the time, our body is generally in fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system mode). This is our stress response and is when our body releases adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormones). This response is meant to be short term – to help us run from the wild beast that we might encounter in the forest. The priority goes to our muscles – especially arms and legs – so that we can literally run for our lives! In this instance – there is no need for us to digest food, or to heal and repair – all we need to do is run. 

All actions deemed inessential to your survival are depressed, in order to give priority to helping you “run for your life.”

Then once the threat is over, our body would then have returned to parasympathetic mode where it can do the healing and repair it needs, digest our food, think more clearly. The stress response was designed to be short term only.

But these days, that fight or flight mode is rarely switched off during our waking hours, for all the reasons above. We are just constantly on the go and not able to switch back in to rest and digest mode, our body is continuously on high alert. 

When the stress is ongoing

Our body can’t tell the difference between real threat and perceived threat. It doesn’t know that there is no wild beast chasing us down the street. It just knows that we are in fight or flight and so the stress response is exactly  the same. It hasn’t moved on evolutionarily since those caveman days.

So in this mode, we know that little priority is given to digestion for example. This can lead to a sluggish digestive system, IBS symptoms, bloating, indigestion and constipation. Cortisol also affects our gut microbiome – it encourages the growth of bad bacteria and inhibits the growth of good bacteria.

Also, long term stress can lead to reduced cognitive function because cortisol starts to kill nerve cells in the brain and can also increase anxiety and depression. And once our microbiome is imbalanced – we produce less of the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – so another way that stress affects our mental health.

Finally, these stress hormones are inflammatory – and inflammation that becomes chronic and unresolved means that your risk of most diseases such as Diabetes type 2, heart disease, stroke, brain disease, obesity and depression is increased.

Often the only time many of us are out of fight or flight and back in to rest and digest is when we are asleep, and even then, disturbed sleep and late meals at night mean that our healing and repair processes aren’t always able to take place at night either.

The solution?

So – what do we do to combat this fight or flight response, and shift back into parasympathetic mode as much as possible? Many of our daily stresses, routines, commitments, relationships, work etc are still going to be there. We can’t live our lives with no stress. The key is in being able to reduce our stress levels and shifting out of fight or flight whenever we can.

There is no one answer – it’s about finding what works for you. That might be meditation, yoga, deep breathing, exercise, walk in nature, a warm bath, a chamomile tea, or even just calling a good friend on the phone for 10 minutes. All of these have been proven to let the body know to turn off the stress and come out of fight or flight. 

Try the 3-4-5 breathing method for example. Breathe in for a count of 3, hold for a count of 4 and then breathe out for a count of 5. Breathing out for longer than you breathe in has been shown to calm to body and shift it out of fight or flight. This is because when we are in fight or flight – our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, so by slowing down our breath in this way – we are sending the message to our body that we aren’t in danger and so it knows to turn off that high alert.

Nutritionally there are also ways to help, as the stress can also be physical as well as emotional. So we can introduce anti inflammatory foods and spices, look at our mineral status to check for deficiencies (Hair Tissue Mineral Test here), use magnesium flakes in the bath as a great way to get this calming mineral absorbed via the skin, look at digestion, check for any underlying infections or parasites in the gut (via microbiome stool testing), reduce sugar and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, and balance our blood sugar so we don’t have sugar highs and sugar crashes. There may also be a place for certain supplements which is all very individual – so speak to a nutritionist to advise.

Certainly supporting the adrenals is always advised in order to avoid “adrenal fatigue.”

Find the method that works for you and stick with it! Introduce it into your daily routine and see and feel the benefits of getting your body out of fight or flight mode. 

Your body will thank you.