Stress Less This Summer

Q. Everyone seems to be enjoying their summer—besides me. The kids are off schedule, driving me crazy, while I’m packing up every Thursday and sitting in traffic just to end up in our hot, crowded bungalow for the weekend. It’s gotten to the point where I almost feel my blood pressure rising every Thursday.  What is wrong with me—and how can I start enjoying summer vacation?

A. You’re describing an interesting phenomenon. Summer is supposed to be a time to refresh, to rejuvenate from busy lives and hectic schedules. Yet, paradoxically, the longer days and warmer weather frequently bring up stress levels for many people.

When the season shifts from spring to summer, employees report an increase in stress, according to a survey by meQuilibrium, a company that provides stress management coaching. Think about it. Summer vacations require planning, expenditure of extra funds and timing issues, like making your flight or sitting in the car for hours. More family time may mean more potential for getting on each other’s nerves. And if you’re away, you may miss the typical comforts of home or other essentials you forgot to pack. Plus, you may get less sleep in the summer, feel uncomfortable from the heat and have less downtime for yourself.

It’s no wonder you are feeling stressed! Here’s the thing about stress—many think they can just shrug it off, but stress takes a toll on one’s physical and mental health.

“When you are stressed out, you are likely to experience some degree of a ‘sympathetic nervous system response,’” explains Dr. Shoshi Lewin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Baltimore, Maryland. “This is your body’s response to a dangerous experience—Hashem’s way of protecting you and allowing you to seek safety and protection.”  

In moments of acute stress, the body switches to its fight-or-flight response as a defense mechanism. Resources are automatically redirected to the central nervous system and whatever parts of the body are currently undergoing stress, away from “less important” functions like digestion, immunity, growth and reproduction. Heart rate, breathing rate, and yes, blood pressure too, increase.

“This is largely due to the effects of cortisol, also known as a ‘stress hormone,’” Dr. Lewin states.

The goal of this reaction is to help you respond to the emergency situation at hand, so you can ultimately return the body to homeostasis (that state of equilibrium where everything runs on an even keel). It’s really an adaptive response, one that helps you survive. The problem is, spending more time in that “stressed out” state affects the body and mind in the long run.

For example, chronic stress may increase blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke. Some research suggests the prototypical “type A” personality—who operates at a certain level of chronic stress—has a higher risk of heart disease. Hormonal changes from stress can impact blood sugar levels, a particular problem for people who have diabetes.

“Stress can have long-term effects on a person’s physical systems, and can make other illnesses worse,” adds Dr. Lewin. “People under stress will observe muscular tension or muscle ache; have difficulty focusing; butterflies in the stomach, increased blood pressure; headache; exhaustion; or sleep disturbance [sleeping too much or insomnia]. In its extreme forms, it can affect most bodily systems.” 

When it comes to mental health, “extreme stress, and high levels of cortisol hormone, can cause depression and even psychosis [though this decreases when the level of cortisol decreases],” says Dr. Lewin. “Since stress often causes sleep disturbance, a person is susceptible to exhaustion. In this exhausted state, you might make poorer decisions about your own health, such as not eating as well or not exercising adequately, both of which can make a problem worse. Also, long-term stress can make you more sensitive to further stresses, which makes it into something of a cycle of stress.”

Spending more time in that “stressed out” state affects the body and mind in the long run.

But a key determinant in how stress affects you might actually be your perception of stress. In an illuminating 2013 TED talk—“How to Make Stress Your Friend”—health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal cites a study of 30,000 adults: those who experienced a very stressful year had a higher risk of dying only if they believed stress was detrimental to their health. “People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die,” says Dr. McGonigal. “In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study.” In other words, if you think stress won’t kill you, it probably won’t.

Dr. McGonigal recommends reframing how you think about stress. Instead of getting stressed out that stress is hurting you, think of the stress response as a way your body becomes stronger, getting you ready to face adversity. When Harvard researchers asked people to do this, their bodies responded much like they do when experiencing courage or joy, rather than stress—eliminating some of the negative cardiovascular changes typically associated with stress.

“It is really interesting how much our expectations play into our personal realities,” comments Dr. Lewin, “such as ‘If you think good, it will be good.’ This is reminiscent of the idea of the placebo effect, meaning, if you believe something will improve your health or work to your benefit, then it will translate into a beneficial effect. It is so effective that researchers will usually test procedures or medications against a placebo, because our expectations of something being helpful can make it truly help us in a measurable way.”

Dr. McGonigal points out another positive aspect of stress—it prompts you to seek support from others. One stress hormone is the “hug hormone” oxytocin (so called because it’s released when you hug someone). Oxytocin sends a message to your brain to seek out closer relationships, to be more compassionate. “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up,” she explains. “When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.”

This, in fact, is what Jewish tradition advises when it comes to conquering stress. The Talmud, based on a verse in Mishlei, states that if one is anxious, he should discuss his concerns with others (Sanhedrin 100b).

To put these ideas into action in your situation, try adjusting your thought process as you prepare for your weekends away. When you feel yourself getting worked up, take a breath and remind yourself that your body is only helping you rise to the occasion. Then pull out your phone and vent to your sister or close friend—or pull over one of your kids and give him or her a big hug.

While you’re working on your response to stress, focus on also reducing the overall stress load in your life too, with these suggestions:

1. Take time for yourself. Sounds impossible? Self-care is a critical piece in stress management. This could be as simple as spending ten minutes enjoying your morning coffee, or picking an activity you actually like over something that only the kids will enjoy.

2. Cut your to-do list. “When in doubt, leave it out,” advises Dr. Lewin. “Stress often gives a sense of being overloaded with tasks, and some of them are not necessary.” For instance, simplify that elaborate menu or dessert for weekends that you are away. You may even decide to forgo traveling some weeks altogether. You don’t have to spend every Shabbat away.  

3. Don’t “keep up with the Cohens.” “Stop comparing yourself to other people,” urges Dr. Lewin. “Each person, based on his or her own biology and life experience, gets stressed out by different situations. It is not fair to yourself to tell yourself, ‘Reuven doesn’t get stressed out from car trips, so neither should I!’ or ‘Sara invites over her relatives for Shabbat all the time—why does that stress me out so much?’”

4. Break it down. “Try to divide things into their component parts,” Dr. Lewin suggests. “Not every task needs to be addressed as a whole; some tasks are more manageable bit by bit.” Instead of leaving all the shopping and packing for Thursday, split it up so Thursday is more relaxed.

5. Delegate. Have others pick up some of the duties that stress you out. Assign specific packing tasks to the kids, or hire a babysitter or mother’s helper to take on childcare duties.

6. Change expectations. “Vacations are supposed to be relaxing” is the script playing in your head—so you get distressed when your trip is the opposite. Go in with the knowledge that you will be stressed, but there will also be enjoyable times too. You won’t feel disappointed and you’ll appreciate the vacation more.  

Special thanks to Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, editor of OU Torah, in preparing this article.

Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer with a private nutrition practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.

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This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2017.
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