It’s 8:00 pm on a Wednesday night at a Silicon Valley law firm. 70 accomplished medtech executives sit in a conference room, doing meditative deep breathing, with their eyes closed. Wait, what?
Strange scene? Yes. Did this actually happen? Yes – at MedtechWomen Bay Area’s March event “The Impact of Chronic Stress on Women’s Health,” part of the organization’s women’s health series. During the evening, we listened to four impressive panelists, led by moderator Donna Petkanics from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, as they talked about how chronic stress affects women’s long term health and how we can more effectively handle the stress that comes our way.
As someone who’s always lived a very full life (rigorous MBA program while working full time? Bring it on!) I’ve always written off stress as a necessary evil of trying to pack as much action as possible into my days. Since I became a parent in 2015, however, I’ve been more acutely aware of the impact living at such a breakneck pace can have on both me and my family. So I was excited to attend this event – and left with three main takeaways:
- Stress is necessary – From my perspective, Panelist Rachel Abrams, MD, MHS, ABIHM, from Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine hit the nail on the head when she said “How can we be inside our busy lives in a way that’s joyful?” In fact, stress is a necessary part of living life. Stress that’s “good” can keep us focused and energetic, and may be the push we need to go that extra mile personally and professionally. “Bad” stress, however, can lead to breakdowns and burnout. The blog Precision Nutrition has a link to a great chart on this topic.We need to find the right amount of stress – one that will inspire us, not leave us feeling overwhelmed. For more information on finding your own personal stress “sweet spot,” see the full infographic from Precision Medicine.
- Stress can have serious health consequences – Panelist Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., President and CEO of Heartmath, Inc. cited a startling statistic from JAMA Internal Medicine: 60-80% of primary care doctor visits are related to stress, yet only 3% of patients receive stress management help.[i] So stress is a common cause of emotional and physical symptoms – from the obvious like anxiety, headaches and muscle tension to the less apparent, like digestive disorders and heart disease.[ii] And there’s evidence that women are affected more seriously by stress than men (I’ve got an infographic on that one too – enjoy.)[iii] Thus, learning how to manage stress – not ignoring it or pushing it down to deal with later – is really important to a healthy lifestyle.
- We can change how we think about stress – A big topic of conversation throughout the night was around changing our stress response mindset. Perhaps our natural inclination is to panic, and all the associated physiological symptoms get triggered. Or, can pause, regroup (because really, is the world ending?), take some deep breaths and try to calm ourselves down. Both Dr. Rozman and panelist Manuela M. Kogan, MD and Clinical Associate Professor at the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine led the group through some simple breathing exercises that frankly could be done at your desk, on the train, or in a meeting without your boss taking notice.
- During the Q&A session, at the end of the workshop, someone asked the panelists what they would do if they only had a few minutes a day to try to manage stress better. Dr. Abrams commented that every morning, before she gets out of bed, she takes a couple deep breaths, says a few gratitudes and then sets one intention for every day. It helps her feel more prepared for what life throws her. I love this idea, and feels “right sized” for my chaotic life. I’m adding this to my daily routine.
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 JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(1):76-77.