Body & Fitness

Dr Libby on why we’re overusing the word ‘stressed’ and how we should really be thinking about the term

''Life will never be completely stress-free, but we can spend less time with that stress response switched on.''
Dr Libby

‘I’m so busy… so stressed out… so exhausted.’ That’s the modern-day mantra many of us continually chant – and Dr Libby Weaver believes it’s time to do something about it.

The health guru and nutritional biochemist says the first step is to think much harder about what we actually mean when we say we’re ‘stressed’.

“It’s become a word that’s overused,” she says.

“We have to start talking about stress differently and deepen the conversation so people can explore what stress really is for them. Life will never be completely stress-free, but we can spend less time with that stress response switched on.”

To be clear, Dr Libby isn’t talking about the stress that accompanies major life events or trauma, but the build-up of everyday stresses at home and work that lead to us feeling overwhelmed.

She likens this to an invisible load, a metaphorical backpack full of rocks we carry around with us the whole time.

That heavy load is made up not of the many things we need to do and remember every day, but of our thoughts about those things and our beliefs about ourselves.

This is what’s really behind the body’s stress response in a modern era, when we rarely need it to pump out cortisol and adrenaline to prime us to escape physical danger.

“The only real strategies out there for stress have been Band-Aids,” says Dr Libby.

“For instance, we know when we increase the length of our exhalation, it decreases [stress] hormone production. And there’s research to show certain medicinal herbs, such as withania, can lower cortisol.”

Rather than relying on these ‘Band-Aids’, what Dr Libby wants is to help people get to the heart of what’s causing their stress and prevent it becoming such a destructive force in their lives, so she’s written what’s arguably her most powerful and confronting book yet, The Invisible Load, a mind/body guide to the causes and effects of chronic stress, with the tools to help you lighten the load.

In her clinical work, Dr Libby has found that when people start feeling the physical effects of stress – from headaches and gut issues, to reproductive problems – they feel as if their bodies are letting them down, when in fact the opposite is true.

“Your body is only responding to the information it’s receiving,” she says.

Sending your body the message that it needs to produce a constant supply of stress hormones can influence everything from your weight and your chances of getting pregnant, to the symptoms of PMT and menopause.

On a day-to-day basis, it can shape the way we live our lives.

“When you’re feeling stressed and exhausted, the ripple effect is huge,” says Dr Libby.

“Everything’s more difficult. It impacts on the food you cook, the jobs you apply for, whether you get off the couch and go for a walk, your self-talk, the friends you make, and the way you speak to everyone you love in the world.”

‘Stress’ tends to be a word we use to cover a whole range of emotions.

We might actually mean we’re afraid or sad, for example, so the first step is to get to the core of exactly what it really signifies for you. Dr Libby’s advice is to use feeling stressed as an opportunity.

“Don’t waste it when you get stressed,” she says.

“Instead, look at it and see what’s really there. A helpful phrase is, ‘Okay, this is showing me something I’m frightened of – I wonder what it might be?’ When you bring curiosity instead of judgement to a situation, you open to insight, and you’ll start to catch a glimpse of what you’re really worried about.”

Drilling down into your thought processes and being truly honest takes courage, says Dr Libby. But if the end result is that you start being kinder to yourself – and unload some of the heavier rocks in your invisible backpack – then it’s undoubtedly worth it.

What do we actually mean by stress?

In the ‘Mind Load’ section of her new book, Dr Libby encourages us to think about what drives us.

Although we’re all different, one thing we all have hardwired into us is the desire to be loved and approved of. Stress can develop when we fear other people are going to perceive us in a way we can’t bear to be seen in, and we risk a loss of approval or respect.

When Dr Libby asked women in their 20s what stresses them out, the two most common responses were their Instagram profile and body image.

Older women tend to roll their eyes when she tells them this, which fascinates her, because when you take a closer look, the same fear – how other people see them – is at the root of much of their stress too.

“I’ve found many women really want to be seen as efficient and hardworking,” says Dr Libby. “So a lot of their stress at work comes from a fear of not being perceived that way.”

If efficiency and work ethic is crucial to your identity, your stress might stem from not wanting to run late or let someone down, striving to return emails in a timely fashion, or simply saying yes to too many tasks and not being able to cope.

To better understand your own drivers, Dr Libby suggests imagining there’s a word written across your forehead that describes how you want people to see you.

“I have to be seen as kind and thoughtful – they’re my forehead words,” she says.

“I used to be completely rigid about that. Growing up, I couldn’t bear it if someone didn’t think I was a kind person, so I’d bend over backwards. Now, there is some flexibility there.

“My preference is that I demonstrate my kindness and thoughtfulness and that’s how others see me, but if they don’t, I’m okay with that.”

Of course, Dr Libby gets stressed, but she’s skilled at examining what’s really bothering her and doing something about it, like giving up treating people one-on-one in her clinics, for instance, because she knows her schedule makes it impossible to offer the attention they need.

Or making time for the simple things that are important to her; every evening at her home in Queensland, she tries to close her laptop and watch the sunset because she loves the way the light changes and needs the calm time to think.

The key is to ask yourself how you want to live, says Dr Libby.

“Lots of people want to live at a fast pace, juggling things and with plenty going on, so the message of this book isn’t ‘Switch off and don’t do much’. It is possible to have a full and busy life that’s not sending you towards burnout or more serious health complaints.”

Obviously, people have always been under stress, previous generations living through things such as world wars and food shortages.

“But as our basic needs have been met in the Western world and our physical safety has become relatively consistent, we’ve shifted our perceptions of stress, which is why I think we’re using the wrong word,” says Dr Libby.

“When I ask people what stresses them, it’s everyday life: family, paying bills and mortgages, a demanding colleague. It’s almost as if ‘stress’ has become the achiever’s word for fear.

But we don’t walk round saying, ‘Oh, I’m really frightened by my to-do list’ – that sounds really odd.”

The Invisible Load: A Guide to Overcoming Stress & Overwhelm by Dr Libby Weaver (Little Green Frog, $39.95).

Lessening the power of stress in our lives can involve many lifestyle tweaks: eating better, drinking less caffeine and alcohol, sleeping enough, moving more.

However, our bodies aren’t going to stop churning out stress hormones unless we examine what’s going on in our heads.

“I want people to be open to the fact that there’s going to be some stress in their lives that they don’t have any control over, and also some they’re creating for themselves because of their thinking,” says Dr Libby.

“I’m not denying for a second that it’s going to be confronting for some people, but I’m hoping they won’t shut down to it.

“The next time you’re in that worked-up state, instead of reciting the mantra over and over again, ‘I’m so stressed, I’m so stressed’, dig into it and think, ‘Okay, if this is showing me something I’m frightened of, I wonder what that might be,'” she continues.

“If you understand that you’re frightened, there’s a tenderness that can come into the way you deal with yourself. That’s what I’m hopeful for, because the tenderness won’t only affect you, it’ll also affect the way you interact with everyone around you.”

Dr Libby’s top tips for reducing your invisible load

1. Take responsibility for where you find yourself, i.e. It’s not the ‘things’ in your life that are adding to your invisible load, it’s your perception of and thoughts about them.

2. Align your life with your values. Ask yourself, ‘How do I want to live?’, then start taking steps – small and/or large – towards that. Many people wait to live in the way that they want to until something external shifts or they reach a certain age. This might be absolutely necessary for now, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take other minorsteps towards living the way you want to, until some of the bigger things shift.

3. Listen to your body’s messages. It’s likely to be the invisible load in action (as long as diseases have been ruled out) when you suffer from symptoms such as exhaustion, weight gain, headaches, uncomfortable periods or menopausal transitions, digestive complaints like bloating, or even sugar cravings and restless sleep.

Many people get frustrated with these symptoms, instead of bringing their attention to what they might be trying to communicate. Your body is your best barometer of your invisible load. Pay attention to what it’s telling you and learn to decipher its messages.

4. The key to reducing your invisible load and your stress is to take small steps to support yourself and incrementally build on them when it feels manageable for you. Most people find this kind of change more sustainable as it isn’t about tipping their whole life upside down and starting from scratch.

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