During my four years of corporate wellness coaching, I learned a LOT about stress. One of our most popular lunch-and-learn seminars was “Understanding the Stress Response,” which came with a unique challenge: talking to people about work stress while they are AT work. The more I learned, the more I was fascinated by it all. And looking back, the more this whole amenorrhea thing made sense, why the “just go on birth control pills!” prescription will not cure what’s happening. There’s more to it than replacing hormones.
Did you know: our body’s stress response can’t differentiate circumstances? You could be running from a bear or sitting in a traffic jam on I-495 — stress is stress is stress! (Just like love, y’all.) If you perceive a situation as stressful, and initiate the stress response, the body thinks it has to save your life! Fight or flight — which must we do RIGHT NOW?!
“I will save you,” it says. “I’m on it!” Poor body, it has no idea your life is (usually) not in danger.
Here’s what happens when we perceive a situation to be stressful (in layman’s terms):
- Alarm bells go off in the brain, sending a signal to the hypothalamus (command center!)
- The adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline (aka epinephrine)
- The latter triggers the release of blood sugars and fats (because to fight or fly we need energy, guys!)
- Other things: heart beats faster to get more blood to the muscles and organs, blood pressure goes up, we can breathe faster (lung airways open up), extra O2 goes to the brain so we can be more alert and aware, and those sugars and fats are all armed-and-ready to help you go, Go, GO!
This list explains why stress is a risk factor for many chronic health conditions, such as metabolic syndrome and heart disease, but that’s for another discussion.
The (big stress) problem
You’re probably not being chased by a bear. Maybe you’re studying for a tough exam, on a tight work deadline, frustrated with your partner/boss/friend, over-exercising, under-eating, not sleeping well (likely because of this stress on stress), or mistreating yourself emotionally and/or physically. But to your body, it’s all the same: stress.
Stress is triggered in many ways, every day
But if you’ve never thought about stress in this way, you may not recognize what you’re feeling as “stress.” You might categorize it some other way and dismiss it. You might think nothing of it. Meanwhile, inside, the body’s systems are in crisis mode all day, every day.
Our bodies aren’t designed well for that
If you’re not actually being chased by a bear or running a marathon or whatever life-threatening challenge you can imagine, you don’t NEED those faster heart beats, or the circulating sugars and fats, or the open airways, or the acute alertness. You don’t need to fight or fly, you may just need to take a big, deep, breath, and put the situation in perspective. Or, you may need to reassess your mental and physical health practices. Our bodies aren’t designed to be over-worked and under-fueled. That’s stressful.
I was stressing myself out in a variety of ways, and it’s no wonder my reproductive system shut down for a while. I get that now. (E.g. stress, for me, may have been any or all of the following: too much exercise, not enough energy from food, a high intake of “low calorie”/highly processed diet-y products, life transitions, drinking like a 20-something, career changes, general impatience (yoga helps with that), etc.)
What happens when we experience chronic stress? Things shut down.
Our bodies get stressed, too. When your body is feeling chronic (frequent) stress — no matter where it’s coming from, because remember, it can’t differentiate those situations! — it feels a strain on its resources and has to think about which ones can be shut down without doing any major harm to you. It usually doesn’t kill these systems; it just hits pause. They can come back, later, when stress has subsided. So, the body takes a quick assessment, asking itself: “OK, which system can we pause? Where can we save some resources? What’s unnecessary for life, right now?”
Guess what system we don’t need in order to stay alive?
The reproductive system.
And here’s where this all comes back to the topic we were chatting about last week: secondary amenorrhea.
Yes, I’ve simplified things for the sake of making a point. There are many factors at play for each individual, but in many ways, it comes down to a body that is over-stressed and undernourished. Nourishment can be in the form of self love, relationships, solutions to chronic problems, physical activity (for health, not calorie-burning), and/or food. It can also be choosing to not stress about our health issues, because that often amplifies the problem(s) at hand. Simply recognizing this now won’t change things overnight, but I hope that it provides a different perspective.
I hope you know that you haven’t done anything wrong, this is not your fault, and you don’t have to make it “right” on your own. I hope you know that there is no normal when it comes to this stuff; we are each a unique case, with unique needs. Looking back on my experience, I can identify my stressors and how I gradually changed them, without having known a single thing about stress at the time. I hope this helps you start to recognize stress in all its forms, because it’s a major player in our health, and helps you start to find your ways to manage it. I hope you know that you can reach out to me, or any mental or physical health professional at any time. That’s what humans are here for.
Resources, from scientists and organizations who know more about this stuff:
- Stress Effects infographic, from the American Institute of Stress
- “Understanding the stress response,” by Harvard Health Publications
- Stress, University of Maryland Medical Center (Acute and chronic; physiological and psychological responses.)
Disclaimer: this post is not meant to replace individual medical advice, diagnose any issues, or prescribe any one solution.