Of all the factors that affect my patients’ hormonal issues, perhaps the most misunderstood is stress. Stress is not just “in your head.” It’s a physiological reaction that involves a massive hormonal cascade that in turn disrupts the rest of your hormones.

The fascinating thing about this response is that it doesn’t distinguish between actual danger, memories of danger, and potential danger. Running away from an actual tiger, remembering a tiger attack, and imagining a tiger attack all trigger the same set of physiological responses. Whether the danger is real, remembered, or imagined, our heart races, our blood pressure rises, and our breathing speeds up, while our appetite vanishes, our stomach acids drop, and our sexual response seems to disappear.

What is really important to remember is that our bodies handle modern sources of stress—deadlines at work, worries about money, relationship problems—in very much the same way as actual physical danger. So when we’re stressed by any actual, imagined, or remembered challenge—from a near miss in traffic to an angry boss—we trigger that response, which always begins with our adrenals releasing a cascade of stress hormones.

When we need to rise to the occasion—whether to flee from a mugger or meet a deadline—we’re very grateful for this hormonal cascade. But when our stress response goes off too often, when we can’t turn it off, or when we feel as though most of our days are lived in unremitting stress, we have a problem. At this point we are facing genuine health risks to our heart, our cardiovascular system, and our immune system (stress suppresses our immune reaction). And of course, all those stress hormones flooding our system play havoc with the rest of our hormones—including our sex hormones.

Our bodies are built to handle one-time emergencies, whether it’s a late night, a major deadline, or a week spent taking care of a sick child. We have more difficulty with prolonged stress unrelieved by relaxation or restoration. That’s the situation so many of my patients are in: the hormonal cascade set off by their prolonged stress disrupts their hormones and well-being on multiple levels, contributing significantly to their health problems.

Here are three ways to modify stress:

  1. Daily “stress busters”: a bath, a quiet cup of tea, a quick walk in the woods, or any other activity that gives you pleasure and relief from stress for even as little as five minutes at a time.
  2. “Stress-release” practices, such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation. Numerous studies have shown that these can be remarkably effective in dissolving stress and developing resources to meet life’s challenges.
  3. Mind/body approaches to address historical stress, including art and dance therapy; Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT); Byron Katie’s “The Work,” and the Hoffman Institute’s Quadrinity Process.

Marcelle Pick co-founded Women to Women in 1983 with a vision to change the way in which women’s healthcare is delivered. Marcelle undertakes a holistic approach that not only treats illness, but also helps women make choices in their lives to prevent disease.