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Mind

Dr Libby on why daily life has become such a battle ground

Wellness expert Dr Libby Weaver believes stress is a major factor in many of today’s health problems, more so than ever before.

By Emma Clifton
If you were to look back into the history of human beings, for a long time there was no stress – only survival.
A constant battle for shelter, food, water on a micro scale, war, disease, famine on a macro scale.
Forty years ago, we didn't talk about stress the way we do today – and yet, in the Western world at least, our lives have never been easier.
The majority of us know where our next meal is coming from, where to seek medical help and we have a source of shelter to rely on. So why are we the most stressed we've ever been?
Dr Libby Weaver has worked in the health and wellness industry for more than 20 years and it was back in 2008 she noticed a shifting pattern in the language her patients had started using.
"When they talked about stress, they were talking about everyday things – their to-do lists, an overflowing inbox, back-to-back meetings, running late for them… just a general sense of pressure and urgency with everything."
It was this shift that led Libby to write Rushing Women's Syndrome in 2011, a look into the "tired but wired" lives of modern women balancing life/work/children/marriage.
The work with her patients over the past decade led to the recent release of her 13th book: The Invisible Load, about overcoming stress and "overwhelm" in our lives.
It's a word that gets used by everyone, all the time. How are you today? Stressed, probably. Stressed, tired, overworked, always five minutes late, always three items behind on your to-do list, always fielding notifications and alerts from your various devices.
"You don't want to blame the advent of the internet or mobile phones, or being available all the time, but I definitely think that has contributed to it," Libby, 44, says.
"Not so long ago when you left the house, no one could get hold of you until you got to another place – whether back home where your landline was, or you got to a business where you worked. There might have been half an hour where you weren't contactable – and we've forgotten what that was like, even though it wasn't very long ago."

The title The Invisible Load refers to the fact that everybody's causes of stress – and responses to stress – are different.
Libby says when she works with people, she'll start by asking them about their health and then move onto asking how they feel in certain situations or about their body or life in general, in order to get a glimpse into their invisible load.
Stress, overwhelm and frantic are three of the main words that come up time and again.
"And rather than it being about something they might just experience for an hour and then it disappears, they feel like that every single day."
The theme that runs through her latest work is less about getting rid of stress from our lives, and more about understanding the root causes of it.
If you've ever read an article called "Why stress is bad for you" and then felt stressed about how stressed you are, you'll understand the importance of this: reframing it, not removing it.
"Lots of people think their stressors come from outside them – the mortgage, the kids, the relentless work deadlines, the colleague who's hard to work with," Libby says. While all of those factors can contribute and play a big role, "we forget that we get to choose how to respond".
The body and the brain have, over thousands of years of evolution, formed a fail-safe method to deal with stress: the classic fight or flight response.
If we sense danger, we either fight it or flee from it (for example, escaping a sabre-toothed tiger, because that's how long ago this response was laid down).
Back then, a human being might see a sabre-toothed tiger three or four times a year, which would flood their system with stress hormones designed to heighten their reaction, and then they would go back to their normal, at-rest state.
These days, there are no actual tigers to avoid but there are metaphorical ones snapping at our heels non-stop.
Deadlines, debt, running late and being stuck in bad traffic, open-plan offices, car breakdowns, actual breakdowns, not to mention the tiny computers that we keep in our pockets and handbags, which mean we are contactable, accountable and interruptible at all times.
Throw a flat white or two into the system and your body can think you're staring down danger multiple times a day. And that's without taking into account the emotional loads that can cause stress.
Stress, Libby believes, is another word for fear.
"But we don't use those language patterns, we don't say, 'Oh, I'm frightened of running late, or I'm frightened of my to-do list.'" It is, however, how our body views stress. Libby wants us to be curious with our stress, rather than judging it: what is your stress trying to tell you?
Take running late, for example.
"If you think about it, why on earth would you be frightened of running late?" Libby asks.
"What you end up seeing is that you're not stressed about the actual act of running late, what most of us are really frightened of is what other people are going to think about us."
It's those everyday moments of stress that Libby hopes The Invisible Load will help people catch themselves in the act of.
"So the next time you notice you're getting really worked up on the inside, instead of just sitting there and going, 'Oh, I'm so stressed,' if you can pause in that moment and go, 'Okay, if this is showing me something that I'm frightened of, I wonder what that is.'"
Libby believes some of our biggest causes of stress are when something happens that shakes the core of how we want to be seen by other people. She calls them "forehead words", the characteristics we feel we have to be seen by.
"It could be kind, thoughtful, efficient, entertaining, creative, intelligent, independent… you can identify how you want others to see you, and it might be different from your boss to your mother-in-law."
If you can work out your own "forehead words", it can help you work out what your triggers are when those words come into question.
"Most of our daily stressors come from when we perceive there's a risk that someone – and usually someone whose opinion we value – is going to see us in the opposite way to how we want to be seen."
Running late, for instance, might panic you because it threatens how you want to be seen in the world.
"It helps you to see that your stress comes from your big heart and the fact that you care, and then you have a conversation with your boss or with your friend that you're running late for, and you say, 'Look, I'm running late, and it's not because I'm inefficient or because I don't care, it's because x, y and z happened, and I just wanted to let you know that I care about you very much, or I value my job very much.' No-one is going to be upset with you, if you're pouring your heart out saying, 'I really care about this job, I really care about this friendship.'"
A large part of stress, for females particularly, can be borne from the innate people-pleasing instincts so many women have ingrained in them.
"Most women are raised to be 'good girls', we are raised to put the needs of others before our own – and there's an absolute beauty in that because it fosters a sense of caring and a lovely sense of community... It's necessary for our society to function. The problems occur when that's the only way we allow ourselves to exist."
This people-pleasing limitation can make it hard for us to do things that would help us reduce that invisible load – like ask for help, or learn to say no to people.
If you're someone who has had the head organisational role in your family for so long – or always been "The Rememberer", as Libby puts it – how can you work to create some flexibility in your life?
"Let's say you really want to spend more time with your grandchildren, or you want to spend more time gardening, and you find that you're always spending your time helping out everyone else and you'd really like to pull back, but you're finding it really difficult to," Libby says.
"You find yourself saying yes, when you really want to say no. It can be helpful to flip it around.
"If you went to someone and said, 'Can you help me out with this?' and they said, 'Oh look, I'd love to but I'm really drowning in my own tasks at the moment, but all the best with that and I hope you go okay,' your response is going to be, 'Oh, is there anything I can do to help?' Whereas I think when we are the one who wants to say no, we fear that the person is going to walk out of our lives or think that we're this awful, uncaring, selfish person. That's essentially what we're frightened of – not being seen to be a good person. And that's not going to be the reality."

Not all stress is bad

It can be hard to balance the need for space and time with our essential need, as women, to feel useful.
This can be particularly jarring when women leave the workplace and head into retirement – how to deal with that lack of purpose, after decades of always having something to do. As much as work can be something that brings stress with it, the space left without it can be overwhelming.
"Usually in that situation, that feeling of stress gives them something – they like the busyness, they like the intensity of the feeling. There are a lot of women who love it and thrive on it."
Not all stress is bad, Libby says – in the book she writes about "eustress", a type of stress that actually strengthens us, builds resilience and drives us in a positive way.
For someone who is coming down from a lifetime of working full time – and the stress that goes with it – Libby says she would first be asking, "'Do you love it?' Because if she does, she's just going to get busy with other things with the rate that she's been working. But she's going to feel happy, like she's got a life that matters and a life where she contributes to others."
It's just important to balance the production of stress hormones with some wellness techniques.
"The thing we know lowers stress hormones the most effectively is when we extend the length of our exhalation, so embracing some sort of breath-focused practice like yoga, Pilates, meditation or Tai Chi. Often, super-busy people who really like that stressed-out feeling will resist it. But it does lower stress hormones very effectively."
It's important to know this, because so many of the habits we get into are just ways to comfort ourselves from the stress we are feeling.
How many of us reach for a glass of wine or two, an extra coffee, or a chocolate bar or three, just to help ourselves deal with the daily stressors of our life?
"We can't change those patterns until we know what we're frightened of," Libby says.
She explains that there's a gland in the body called hypothalamus, which has the full-time job of asking the body: "Am I safe?"
"If the hypothalamus looks into your blood and sees lots of adrenaline because you've got 600 unopened emails and you've had four coffees in the last two hours, then the answer is immediately 'No'. The hypothalamus then sends a message [around the body] to say, 'We're not safe, do your thing,'" she elaborates.
Your body is flooded with stress hormones to help you fight off the sabre-toothed tiger it thinks is standing in front of you, when really you're just trying to get through a regularly stressful morning.
The issue with a body that's been pumping out stress hormones for decades is that it can take a big toll on your reproductive system.
"Menopause is when your ovaries stop producing sex hormones. When that happens, you're predominantly supposed to
rely on your adrenal glands to make small amounts of oestrogen and progesterone. But if you go into menopause having lived on the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline for decades before menopause – which many women do now – then you won't have made sex hormones from your adrenal glands in all that time."
"Instead of falling back and relying on the adrenals, your body goes from having bucket loads to none. Whereas if your adrenals were still making oestrogen and progesterone, the depths you go to are somewhat buffered."
It can also have consequences when it comes to weight gain after menopause.
"The body knows a small amount of oestrogen is actually very good," says Libby.
"Even post-menopause we still need some for our heart and our brain. If you've been so stressed for all these years, you're not going to make any from your adrenal glands, but your body fat can produce oestrogen so your body goes, 'I know how we can produce more oestrogen, we'll just increase your body fat levels.' And obviously a lot of women don't like that and they start to play with their food and their movement – but that's not what created the problem."
It's why Libby is so passionate about changing the conversation about stress and trying to understand the root causes of it.
"It's not just 'here are some strategies to lower stress hormones' – I'm trying to help people not make the hormones in the first place. I often see people at the bottom of the hill – they've crashed, and they're suffering terribly. We've got to really look at what stress is for us as individuals because what I see, especially for women with menopause, is that it's only getting worse and worse. And the ripple effect of that can be really big."
Towards the end of the book, Libby asks readers to look at reducing their stressors by focusing on an important question: how do you want to live?
It's a way of helping them cut through the overwhelming aspects of life by working out what their values are, and aligning their daily lives, as best they can, towards them.
"It reduces stress very much – I've witnessed it in my patients, or with people that come to my women's weekends," Libby says.
"You don't often realise how important those little daily things are until you ask yourself that question and see what bubbles to the surface. You catch a glimpse of the things you find important, and it helps you not to sweat the small stuff."
It can help people zero in on what they want their purpose to be – both in their jobs and in their lives.
"It means when they wake up each morning, there's a real sense of what they care about, what they value and how they can do something towards that as often as they can. Having a fulfilled life and a healthy, functional body is one of the best ways we can say 'thank you'.
"'Thank you that I was given this gift of life, that I was born.'"
The Invisible Load: A Guide to Overcoming Stress and Overwhelm, by Dr Libby Weaver, $39.95, is available now. See drlibby.com

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