It’s no surprise that Americans’ stress levels are on the rise. This is especially true among women, according to reports by The American Psychological Association and other organizations that track the different ways stress impacts men and women’s physical and mental well being.
The reasons for this are extensive, but among them is the pressure to live up to one’s personal standards as well as society’s is contributing to more chronic illness, exhaustion, burnout and use of prescription drugs than ever.
It’s no wonder women are seeking more sustainable, healthier ways to better manage their stress.
Many of them depend on running for this reason. A Runner’s World magazine survey indicated that 98% of runners stick with the sport for stress relief. That certainly seems true among the runners who come on our retreats, too.
Heather Lee, MSW, is an expert on women’s stress and health. Heather has spent the last 25 years sharing her expertise and passion for wellness with women through workshops, retreats and coaching.
Most importantly, she’s a long-time trail runner who approaches her running as a key aspect of her self-care practice.
“When I trail run, it feels like a simple re-balancing of my body, mind of spirit,” she says. “Through my clinical training, I understand that what’s actually happening is a re-balancing of my nervous system, lowering of stress hormones, boosting serotonin and other ‘happy, feel-good’ hormones.”
Heather is a masters-level mental health professional with advanced training in mind/body medicine from the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute and is the past Director of the Mind/Body Medicine and Women’s Health Education programs at The University of Virginia Medical Center. Throughout the retreat, she’ll teach afternoon workshops featuring tools and methods from her extensive experience in women’s stress management.
We asked Heather to answer a few questions about women’s stress and health:
Q: Why do you think women experience the effects of stress more acutely than men?
Heather: Despite some role equalization in our society, women are still left with juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. The hours between 5 and 8 p.m. can be particularly stressful as it’s a time of transition from a long day of work responsibilities to home and family. Coping with so many duties involves a lot of logistics and decision making, which can be stress-inducing.
As much as we want to blame our external circumstances for our stress, it is in fact largely internal. Stress is largely produced by our perceptions, internal dialog, pressure to do it all and self-imposed high expectations. Most women have an inner voice telling them to get it all done and do it well all the time, which leaves little space for self care.
For women at midlife, you add to this pressure-cooker situation dramatically changing hormones, new health conditions, disrupted sleep, concerns for aging parents and you can see how women are often caught in the epidemic of stress.
Q: How do these differences influence the ways women deal with stress?
Heather: Men are great at compartmentalizing and are often more skilled at dealing with something without letting their emotions cloud their perceptions. Women, however, tend to think big picture and and look at all the various aspects of their lives, which can lead to compounding their problems and then becoming overwhelmed by them.
Women would rather not burden others with their concerns, but when they do voice their concerns, worries and stress with other women, it vastly decrease their stress, enhances their sense of well being and even boosts their immune system. And when women effectively convey to spouses, families, co-workers and bosses what they’re feeling and what they need, the less stress impacts their health, which is called stress resilience.
Q: How specifically does trail running help women manage stress?
Heather: Research also has proven that time in nature, a sense of awe and disconnecting from all of our gadgets promotes longevity, inner peace and overall health. Trail running is the perfect mind, body, spirit fix when, as with anything, it is done mindfully.
With that in mind, I don’t run with music, and instead I consciously attend to my inner dialogue and use this time to say kind and affirmative things to myself such as: “I am strong and healthy;” “I am one with all the beauty and balance that surrounds me.” These mantras give me a wonderful feeling of calm and inner peace. I also notice my surrounding sights, sounds, smells with a mindset of appreciation and awe at how amazing our natural world is.
Q: What role can travel play in breaking the stress cycle?
Heather: Travel is like a great metaphor for the journey of life. We’re one person at the beginning of the trip, but by the end, can be changed in some way by the experience we had along the way. Sometimes that transformation occurs simply by attending more closely to our health and feeling truly at home in our bodies, which we rarely do in our everyday routines at home.
Travel is also an opportunity to tune in to how we are interpreting our perceived experiences. How is my mindset, assumptions or expectations coloring my experience? Am I judging myself or others? To help us all become aware of these tendencies, wellness workshop weave together a mix of fun and engaging activities such as guided imagery, visual journaling, mindful movement, life mapping and even dream journaling. These activities are tied to evidence-based strategies for promoting health, optimism, inner wisdom and clarity for goal setting.
And personally, I appreciate that the retreat afforded me time to be alone with my thoughts as well as time to share, laugh and talk with other amazing women on the trail. And I can’t think of a better location for these experiences than the Mediterranean Sea in eastern Spain, where you have waves crashing on the shore, beautiful little running trails and the sun shining overhead. It makes me feel healthy and strong as I breath in deeply appreciating where I’ve been and all that lies ahead.