SPA HEALTH: Treating Superwoman

When today’s multi-tasking woman charts a collision course with self-neglect, your spa can come to the rescue.

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Tending to children, caring for aging parents. Interacting with husband, interacting with boss. Driving, shopping, cooking, cleaning, budgeting, worrying. Amazed when a professional weightlifter can hoist 200 pounds of iron into the air? Ha! That’s nothing compared to the feats of strength that your average female, 35-to-55-year-old client is called upon to accomplish on a daily basis. Women today are over-scheduled, over-extended, over-tired and over-stressed, with no end in sight. (Perhaps this even describes you, the busy spa professional!) In fact, when it comes to today’s “superwoman,” regular spa visits might be the only thing that keep her from dropping that giant weight on her toe, metaphorically speaking.

Let’s look at some findings from the good folks at the American Psychological Association, who continually survey people of all ages and walks of life. Half of the women they’ve talked to say their stress has increased over the past five years, with money and the economy ranked as the No. 1 culprit. Worry about the health of a spouse or child comes next, followed by the stress of raising children. Married women experience more stress than single women.

We know this isn’t healthy. In fact, says the APA, 69% of women think that managing stress is very important. Yet, only 35% feel they are successful in doing so. Let’s break it down: 64% think that eating healthily is important for controlling stress but only 36% do so; 54% think being physically active helps ease the problem, but a mere 29% actually exercise; and 75% think that adequate sleep is important but only 33% say they get enough zzzs.

It all adds up to a pretty sorry state of affairs, and it’s taking its toll. The superwoman’s unrelieved and unending stress presents itself in the form of headaches; stomach problems and indigestion; poor eating habits and/or obesity; fatigue; insomnia; and feelings of irritability, anger, anxiety and depression. Prolonged stress is linked to heart disease, metabolic disorders, lowered immunity and slower healing. And yet, the paradox perpetuates because what women say they’d need in order to change is more energy. Stress is now a chronic, rather than an acute, condition.

Female Kryptonite

Much has been said in recent years about the so-called sandwich generation, those who are effectively “sandwiched” between the needs of their children and those of their aging relatives. According to estimates, there are 42 million American women living this way, and the squeeze they experience is so significant that the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) commissioned a report solely to explore their challenges, titled “Not Ready for Prime Time: The Needs of Sandwich Generation Women, A National Survey of Social Workers.” The report uncovers these women’s deepest concerns, among them a lack of preparedness for handling aging parents’ needs and lack of knowledge about finding outside caregiving help.

Of course, many men of the sandwich generation are subject to the same stressors that plague their female counterparts. But societal pressure still tends to dictate that women are the primary caretakers, and the stress that results from continually putting other people first poses serious health risks.

There are distinct differences between the genders when it comes to stress. First, there’s behavior: Men are more reluctant to report feeling stress, so they “suck it up” and perhaps seek relief in a round of golf or a pint of beer. Women have the impulse to talk about it. Second, there are physiological differences, which may be due to hormones. The typical human reaction to stress is a surge of adrenaline referred to as the “fight or flight” response. But when a woman is under stress, her reproductive hormones may signal her to “tend and befriend” instead, cueing her to turn her attention to others. And this may, in turn, actually increase her stress load.

“I see women at menopausal age who say their lives have been about everyone else, and they haven’t looked at themselves,” says Naomi Boggs, owner of Maya Moon Healing Arts in Boulder, Colorado, whose wellness center is entirely focused on holistic approaches to achieving good health. “But the truth is, if we aren’t caring for ourselves, then no one else benefits from us.”

According to Boggs, too many women are “running in a permanent state of 9-1-1.” And, as a licensed massage therapist and doula, and a certified clinical herbalist, nutritionist, yoga teacher and practitioner of Maya Abdominal Therapy, she surely sees the active toll of this condition. Boggs’ cited list of stress-induced disease includes nervous system disorders, anxiety, sleep problems, chronic pain, chronic inflammation, colds and flu that linger, nutritional deficiency, constipation, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, infertility, and emotional “fuses” that get shorter and shorter. “We’re so busy running from the bear that we’re not digesting our food and we’re not making babies when we want to,” she says. “This is not how our bodies are intended to function.”

Because women are talkers, the first sign that you’re dealing with a stressed-to-the-max client might be her constant need to communicate. “She wants to tell you her whole story; she’s not able to close her eyes and breathe and drop into herself,” says Boggs, who spots some of the same signs of stress in clients that she recognizes in herself. “I’m lying in bed but I’m clenching my butt or my jaw. I’m doing dishes but I have a scowl on my face. I’ll notice a client’s fingertips curling up during a treatment.” For some of these women, the stress itself becomes a way to avoid feelings—they might feel that if they let go, they’ll fall apart. Boggs tries to get such clients to understand that this state of being can’t go on indefinitely.

Kim Laudati, owner of Kim Laudati Skin Care In Manhattan says she can spot a stressed-out superwoman just by looking at her face. Dull skin, acne, rosacea, psoriasis and eczema all have a stress connection, she says. Even more telling are clients reporting first-time problems. “Over and over again, I hear clients saying that they never had break-outs as a teenager and their skin problems are new. They can’t figure out what’s going on.”

As the largest organ of elimination, it’s no wonder that skin becomes a channel through which stress processes itself. Hair and nails are often affected as well. In fact, no part of our physiology escapes unscathed.

“Stress works through the entire body,” notes Laudati, “from blood flow that affects circulation to the lymphatic drainage system that directly affects skin. I have some clients who are generally healthy, physically. They may even be good about exercising and taking supplements and drinking water and eating well. But stress is still wreaking havoc on their lives.”

Rescuing the Rescuer

Day spas can be a key component of the stress-management solution for superwomen—if they allow themselves to seek and receive your support.

“As our society’s demographics shift, older women will increasingly find themselves shouldering heavier caregiving burdens, but they don’t have to do it alone,” says Pat Volland, director of NYAM’s Social Work Leadership Institute. “Unfortunately, there are barriers to seeking help because women think they should be self-reliant and able to handle it all.”

How do you break through that wall of self-reliance? Laudati starts by getting a reading on her client’s stress-o-meter during her intake. “A direct, general question like, ‘How was your weekend?’ can open up an hour of conversation,” she says.

Once that client is in your treatment room, though, the key to breaking the self-neglect cycle lies in maximizing the healing experience and its after-effects. Boggs starts by getting the stressed-out client to visualize her breath, to listen to the sounds in the room and to connect to a soothing scent. “I’ll let her talk if she needs to, or I’ll tell her to wiggle her fingers and toes, but then I take her back to her breath,” Boggs explains. How successful is she with the most tightly wound clients? “I’ll get them to at least think they’re relaxed, and that’s an improvement for them. If they get one deep breath out of the 50 I ask them to take, they’ll feel better.”

Women often have a hard time spending their time and money on themselves, even when those expenditures could sufficiently recharge their wellness and wellbeing to help them carry on. So, it’s important to have that conversation. “We have to question that woman’s core belief that everything has to be just so: that the house must look a certain way, that she must look a certain way, that everything else has to come ahead of her,” Boggs explains. “Together we find that things don’t really need to always be 100%. Sometimes it’s okay to wear sweatpants.”

Boggs suggests to clients three steps to support stress management:
Cultivating a regular practice This could be a five-minute walk every day, some time set aside to sit and breathe or experience nature—anything that creates a time-out.

Aromatherapy “Scent calls people home,” says Boggs. Essential oils, carried around in a spritzer, can shift energy and instantly elevate mood.

Personal care When reservoirs are low, good nutrition, grooming and exercise tend to fall to the wayside. But small, positive steps, like simply eating more vegetables, pave the road.
It should be noted that personal care has to be realistic or it will turn into another stressor. The client who says it’s all she can do to wash her face at night should not be pushed into a nine-product skincare regimen. “If I can get clients to cleanse, moisturize and use sunblock, we can accomplish something,” says Laudati.

Finally, we know that economic worries make it even harder for many women to incorporate spa visits into their lives. For these women, spa is still a luxury, not an investment in wellness. Laudati has clients facing unemployment, general money worries and, being based in New York, worlds turned upside down by Hurricane Sandy. She works with these clients to create a program that can fit within their budget.

Boggs, too, helps women figure out what they need most, and even has a sliding scale of fees to help them afford it. In the end, she says, it doesn’t even matter what type of treatment or practitioner a stressed-out woman turns to, only that she does so: “It’s asking for help, it’s having someone rooting for them. It’s creating an ally.”

Andrea Renskoff is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.