Stress might well be an important part of your life — the impetus to strive, achieve, and accomplish — but is it really doing you any good.

Experts agree that a little stress in our lives can be a good thing, the sort of kick-start that can remind us we are really alive, but in large doses, it can have a detrimental effect.

At a time when 40 percent of American women in the workforce have children, busy lives, and all the usual pressures of trying to perform dual roles, it isn’t so surprising that many women are beginning to feel the strain.

While juggling a demanding job, family and social commitments can be exhilarating, it can also be plain exhausting.

Rushing to finish work projects in order to make the 5 pm day-care deadline, the supermarket before closing or home before the teenagers burn the house down can be a recipe for disaster. It’s the sort of pressure a few of us really need.

It is all very well being in control at the office but all that control falls in a heap once it comes to piling the kids into the car and trying to shop for the evening meal, knowing that the sight that will greet you as you walk in the front door is more than likely to be a picture of chaos — and a glaring reminder of your flight out the door earlier that morning.

A generation ago, many women balanced domestic chores with child-rearing responsibilities and then, if they felt inclined, added a little community service on the side.

Today, as more than 40 percent of married women struggle to lead double lives — as wives and mothers and as valuable members of the workforce — it is inevitable that many of them are feeling the pressure.

One woman said she often thought wistfully about the time she was able to tackle one chore properly and thoroughly. Now she did a lot of things, but many were only half done.

Increased participation by women in the workforce has brought with it problems along with the rewards. The main issue seems to be stress, something that affects all workers but manifests itself in a number of guises in women.

A woman under stress might not even realize she is feeling this way, but might find she is catching more colds, having trouble sleeping, drinking, or smoking too much.

One doctor said it was common for her female patients to come to her complaining of physical symptoms, the underlying cause of which were stress-related.

She said the most common side-effects of stress included feelings of tension, fatigue, worry, nervousness, irritability, moodiness and backache.

Responses to stress involve many parts of the body. Stress-induced chemical messages are carried to the hypothalamus, which sends further chemical messages to the pituitary gland and, via the brain and the spinal cord, to the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands then release adrenalin, which speeds heart-beat and raises blood pressure. The pituitary gland sends out messages that increase blood sugar levels and speed up the body’s metabolism.

With all this going on it is no wonder we feel strange, but these changes in the body are preparations for action; “fight or flight”.

The trouble is, having a body that is primed for action all the time is hardly appropriate in the context of everyday life. Over long periods it can actually cause physical damage to the body.

Increased rates of heart disease, ulcers, indigestion, panic attacks, and muscle tension leading to headaches are just some of the physical problems of unmanaged stress levels.

Some medical experts estimate that as many as 60 to 80 percent of their patients have stress-related illnesses.

Stress is by no means confined to working women. Long days at home with small children, financial or matrimonial problems can be a huge source of stress.

And high-interest rates, trouble at work, a drinking husband, sick children, or an unfaithful spouse are not stressful in themselves.

Stress is the disparity between the problem and the person’s ability to cope with it. So for some women, an unfaithful husband may cause no stress at all, while for others it is a devastating stress.

Similarly, a busy life can be exhilarating for some people and wretched for others.

An easy option to avoid stress would be to minimize our tasks and problems. Avoid trouble. Get an easy job. Avoid responsibility. Avoid active competition. Retreat from the hustle of life and simply vegetate.

If this is not possible — or for that matter, desirable — it is better to realize that there are ways of coping and there are things that can be done to manage stress levels.

These coping mechanisms include exercise, taking time for hobbies, talking with friends, taking action to change some irrelevant stresses, and making time for relaxation.

Some women report good results with meditation, bio-feedback, and self-help groups. Adding an exercise routine has proved very beneficial for many women.

And there is growing evidence of the benefits of nutritional supplements. Many women devote a lot of time and energy to making sure their families eat balanced and nutritious meals yet take little care over their own eating habits.

Conscious of their weight, they will starve themselves of not only good food but the necessary nutrients to help them keep up with their busy lives.

According to nutritionist Leon Chatow, a busy or stressed person could benefit from the vitamin B complex, vitamins B3, B5, B6, C, calcium and magnesium, zinc, potassium, and manganese. He suggests taking the supplements individually rather than in one multi-vitamin. Your chemist or local health food store will advise you on the most suitable levels.

Chatow, the author of The Stress Protection Plan, says a number of tell-tale signs indicate possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

They include cracks at the corners of the mouth, scaling skin at edges of the nose, ridged, brittle or soft nails, receding gums that bleed easily, skin that bruises easily, white flecks in nails, stretch marks on the skin, slow-healing grazes and cuts, lifeless hair, low vitality and a feeling of listlessness and poor dream recall.

There are other signs but these should indicate all is not well.

Chatow believes you can go a long way to helping yourself by adjusting your diet. He believes that 50 percent or more of your diet should include raw foods such as salads, fruits, nuts, and cereals.

He also suggests replacing tea, coffee, and chocolate with herbal teas and avoiding alcohol, except wine or real ale in moderation.

If stress is really bothering you, it is up to you to make some changes to your life.

The trouble for many women is that some of these options are limited by the demands of family and household responsibilities.

Sometimes just getting away from these responsibilities can make all the difference.

Here is a plan to change your habits that can make a difference to your life:

  • Avoid working more than 10 hours a day, and ensure that you have at least 1½ days a week free of routine work. If possible, an annual holiday, away from it all, should be arranged.
  • During each day, have at least two relaxation or meditation periods.
  • Try to do at least 10 minutes of active physical exercise a day, or 20 minutes four times a week.
  • Balance your diet and cut down or eliminate harmful substances.
  • Seek professional advice about any sexual or emotional problem that might be nagging at the back of your mind.
  • If you know what causes your stress, do something about it.
  • Cultivate a creative rather than a competitive hobby.
  • Try to live in the present and forget about reflecting on past events or worrying about possible future problems.
  • Concentrate on one task at a time. Finish it, then go on to something else.
  • Avoid making deadlines or impossible promises that will only give you more stress. Be assertive and only accept what you can happily do.
  • Accept personal responsibility for your life and your health — don’t blame others for your predicaments.

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