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Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD

Full Bio
worried and anxious young female inside with headache and stress

Stressed for Success

Self-Care & Mental Health

pam peeke

Everybody talks about stress, especially women. We're stressed in traffic, at work, even when we have to pay the bills every month. And caregiving to everyone who comes within 100 feet of you is stressful. Where do you find the inner strength to handle this stress? As a woman, you learn to become stress resilient.

Doctors and scientists have done countless studies on why women end up with fatigue, roller coaster moods, poor sleep and extra weight. Most of them relate this problem directly to the stress of caregiving to so many others in our lives. We plop down on the couch and worry, instead of getting up and walking around the block or exercising to clear our head. We eat to soothe the tensions that build up throughout the day—how about that comfort food?

So what we need to learn how to do is become stress resilient.

Let me show you how your brain works. As I explained in my book Fight Fat After Forty, some people have a hormonal imbalance that triggers them to eat more to attempt to soothe stress. Believe it or not, there are actually some people who have the opposite kind of hormonal imbalance, which sparks them to eat less when under stress!

That initial spark from your Alarm Hormone that occurs when you are under stress isn't strong enough to initiate a healthy cascade of hormones into your blood. It undershoots the stress response. Through a complicated chain reaction, this leads to appetite stimulation.

This inspires Stress Overeaters to binge-eat to quench their need for reward and fulfillment. But, of course, they never feel adequately satisfied. If you are a Stress Undereater, you were born with higher than normal levels of Alarm Hormone. Since this hormone is a powerful appetite suppressant, your internal instinct is to reject food. So you see there are three stress-eating profiles: Stress Overeaters, Stress Undereaters, and Stress Resilient people (healthy eaters). In the stress resilient folks, their hormones are correctly balanced, so when stress occurs, the alarm hormones keep their eating desires in balance.

With each stress-eating profile, stress triggers different adaptive responses based on genetics and environment. It can seem difficult, but it's our job to think through the situation when it happens.

A patient of mine, Eileen, once told me: "I don't see stress as all bad. There's positive stress, which is very invigorating, such as when I'm on deadline for some exciting project. Then there's negative stress, which usually has some anxiety-provoking emotional problem associated with it—arguments with the kids, conflicts in general. I remember one argument I had with my son when he was a teenager; I was so upset I had my hand in a cereal box shoveling out some icky sugar-coated flakes I didn't even like." She paused then continued: "The difference is my perceived control of the stress. I used to turn to food as a comfort, even though I realized it was only a temporary reprieve from dealing with the problem. I have learned to deal with my problems in a non-self-destructive way. It's about finding constructive (rather than destructive) strategies for dealing with the big and little zingers that life throws your way."

Eileen shows us that resilience involves staying flexible so you can balance your life. She is also clear-headed. Stressful situations come up every day, and she shows that it just requires each of us to take a breath, look at the situation and then quickly figure out how to deal with it realistically.

Women go through common challenges: caregiving stress, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed. It's time to take back control and learn how to adapt and adjust to life's challenges without resorting to self-destruction. Make time to get your annual physical exam. Ritualize your grocery shopping. Plan your meals. Get your exercise up on the calendar. Move more throughout each day. Integrate plenty of treats. Weave peaceful times into your weekly schedule—escape for a long walk alone or with a friend. Meditate. Write in your journal. Have fun—dance, skip along the beach, play with your kids or grandkids.

The bottom line is that stress resilience is about balancing the working, playing, personal and professional parts of our busy feminine lives. You can do this!

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert and speaker in the fields of nutrition and stress, as well as the evolving field of integrative medicine. Click here to learn more.

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