By Courtney Perkes, The Orange County Register
When gynecologists Stephanie McClellan and Beth Hamilton wanted to figure out how to better care for their patients, they shifted their attention to a different body part the brain.
They noticed after the Sept. 11 attacks and again more recently with the financial meltdown, more women came to them with physical manifestations of chronic stress. They decided to find out why one woman might lose hair in response to her circumstances while another develops a bladder infection.
Earlier this year they co-authored “So Stressed,” a book specifically geared toward women, offering personalized coping, nutritional and fitness advice, based on how the subject responds to stress. In addition to their medical practice, both doctors are married with children and understand the demands many women face balancing career and family.
McClellan, 56, and Hamilton, 39, sat down in their Newport Beach office last week to discuss their work.
Q. In the book you point out that you’re both ob/gyns, not psychologists. What did you see in your practice that made you write this book?
A. McClellan: We believed that chronic stress was the root cause of many of the chronic illnesses or complaints or issues that people were dealing with. We didn’t understand as traditionally trained doctors how some people shed weight, and for another stress makes her gain weight without any change in diet. That was our search. Once we got that answer, we realized we had to write the book.
Q. Can you explain some of the biological/social differences that you say make women more susceptible to the effects of stress?
Hamilton: Our roles are less clearly defined than they were before. This is wonderful because we have more freedom and the opportunity to pursue our career goals and ambitions. But at the same time, we’re the caregivers. There’s so much demand on our time and energy. There are a couple of major differences in stress response between men and women. Interestingly enough, we’ve always thought of fight or flight as being one of the major stress responses when we’re attacked or perceive a threat.
A scientist at UCLA by the name of Shelley Taylor has dedicated her career to tend and befriend. The idea is that under stress men may react to prepare the body to either fight or flee, but women have the tendency to turn to others for social support. When they do this, their stress response pathways are actually quieted. It has a protective effect for the female body. The idea is in ancient times the woman’s role in the group was the caregiver. Women were bonding together and taking care of the young. If they all just fought and ran there would be a lot left behind under stressful circumstances. It’s hardwired in. You can feel it when you’re under a great deal of stress and you call your best friend and have a good conversation. You actually feel that relief wash over you.
McClellan: We went to Germany and met with a professor there, (Dirk) Hellhammer. His entire life work has been on stress. … He’s done a lot of work on men. They were all confounded with women because their stress response varied with their menstrual cycle. Women on birth control pills, their biochemical markers of stress in some ways looked more male.
Q. Do you discuss stress levels with all your patients?
McClellan: Even our medical assistants will now say, “Mrs. So and So, who you’re going to see, she’s under chronic stress.” … We now see what it is. We’re able to say, “Gosh, your husband lost his job in the last year and you’re caring for sick parents and you have a child applying to college.” We’ve rephrased the question. … Here’s why we think now we understand the rise of illness we see in our practice. Never before in human history have there been so many people who have no ability to provide or take care of themselves. There are very few of us who would be able to go out in the forest and even make it for two nights. We don’t know what to eat or find or weave clothing. The currency of survival today is literally currency. That’s why money has become so important.
Q. How stressed were you while writing the book and how did you manage it?
Hamilton: I will say I think it was a very stressful project. Add writing a book on to a medical practice on to having responsibilities with our families. We joked many times we’re going to die of stress while writing a book about stress. I think what saved us was what we were learning as we went along. We started to identify our own stress response types. We started making changes.
McClellan: There were some times we were working 20-hour days. Beth and I realized we are complete opposite stress types. Beth is a Hyper S (characterized by overdrive, inability to quiet the body and mind) and I’m a Hypo S (characterized by exterior calm but possibly chronic fatigue and pain). When we travel, Beth is up in the morning, she’s perky and she’s ready to go. Her idea of exercise is let’s go out and run for an hour….For me, Pilates became my favorite exercise because it’s rhythmic but it’s also quiet.
Q. Is stress an unavoidable part of our modern, overextended lives? What level of stress do you think women need to learn to live with?
Hamilton: I think to expect your life is going to be without stress would be totally unrealistic. The message of our book is not about trying to have a stress-free life. The message we’re trying to deliver to women is if you pay attention to the lifestyle you’re leading and build a foundation for good health, it’s possible to go through these stressful times and remain well. That’s the message of hope.
“So Stressed,” published by Simon & Schuster retails for $26. For more information, visit sostressedonline.com.