When you have questions about your health, you want answers from a trustworthy source. In The Real Life Body Book, a Harvard ob-gyn has joined forces with a humor writer to explain the full range of health issues facing young women today. This comprehensive and authoritative guide focuses on whole body wellness and prevention, from the skin (acne, piercing, tattooing) and the head (mental health, hormones, stress) to the bones, heart, and stomach (diet and digestion), plus sex and reproductive wellness. If you’re between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five and you want the latest facts about your health in a language you can understand, The Real Life Body Book is the go-to resource for keeping your body healthy today and for the rest of your life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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About the Author
Monique Doyle Spencer is a contributing columnist for the Boston Globe. Her work has also appeared in the International Herald Tribune and on the New York Times website. Spencer is the chair and founder of The Bucket Brigade, a volunteer-based group working in Southern Sudan, as well as the author of two books on cancer-related issues. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
stress and your body
Does it stress you out to know that stress can kill you?
You know the feeling. You have ten important things to do but time to do
only one. Then one more thing gets added—meeting the boyfriend’s family, going on a business trip when you hate flying, losing your wedding ring. Stress.
Life is stressful. Sometimes even good things—a new partner, a new job, a vacation—can trigger stress. Of course, bad things—a failed test, the end of a relationship, losing a job—can worsen stress. So can wearing tight shoes all day.
Too much stress can increase your risk for heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, ulcers, colds, and PMS, just for starters. Even if it doesn’t kill you, stress can definitely cause physical problems like headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, back and neck pain, fatigue, and insomnia. Stress can also cause you to feel depressed, angry, and anxious, and it can affect relationships at home and at work.
Believe it or not, a little stress is good for us. It keeps us striving and energetic. Studies show we are more motivated, more productive, and even happier when slightly stressed. But too much stress is not good, so let’s take a look at what the biggest causes of stress are and review some tips on how to manage stress better.
Before we start, remember that we’re talking about lots of individual women here. Even if your particular stressors are different from my list, the tips for reducing stress and the damage it can do to you can work no matter what pushes your stress buttons.
What’s Stressing You Out?
So what are the biggest causes of stress for women age twenty-one to thirty-five? For some women, it’s career building. For others, it’s starting a family. For many, it’s not having enough time, being overextended, and not having a good work-life balance. However, the biggest stressor for women in this age group is relationships.
Sound like an odd topic for a body book? Not when we’re looking at your whole body. If relationships, good or bad, are causing you stress, there’s a classic mind-body connection that’s important to pay attention to. We know the impact that stress has on you and your organs!
Stress and Other People
Your family, friends, and partners create a core of happiness in your life. Every good relationship you have helps you relieve a ton of stress. But at some dark point in your life, you—like everyone else—are going to think “I hate people. I hate every single one of them.”
Since relationships are a major part of your life—and often your stress—we’re going to look at some typical situations and the problems that other people sometimes cause. We’re looking for stressors that you can change. And if you can’t change them, we’re looking for ways to stop the stress from damaging your health.
Love, Lust, and Stress
You have many relationships in your life, but I’m going to start with the one you’re probably thinking about right now. Your boyfriend, your girlfriend—or whatever you call your partner—s/he brings joy and stress into your life just as you do his or hers!
Here’s your doctor’s view. Today’s world is complex, and relationships change all the time. We tend to settle down with a long-term partner a lot later in life than our parents did, so most of us are likely to be exposed to more than one sex partner. And that partner has probably been with someone other than just you. Not always, but usually.
So as your doctor, I’m going to remind you to be aware of protection from disease and pregnancy, and to be certain you’re in a safe environment. I strongly recommended serial monogamy—one partner at a time. Ideally, before you have sex with a new partner, you should know that both of you have been checked for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. At the very least, use condoms until you do. (And remember to pack your own.)
As your whole body doctor, however, I want to know if your lifestyle makes you happy, miserable, or depressed—in other words, stressed! I’ve seen all three. There’s the woman who wanted to have sex with many partners before settling down but became miserable when her biological clock began ticking and her party girl ways hadn’t found her a partner. I have a happy patient who had an uncountable number of sex partners, chosen “only by their sexiness, not their character,” and then married a great guy and never looked at another man. Another woman feels desperately sad and guilty about sex, especially early in relationships, because her sex partners rarely call after sex. Relationships can unfold in lots of ways, but they all have the potential to cause stress.
Most healthy relationships don’t start with sex; however. They start with friendships—at work, through friends, and through family, community, or houses of worship. Even online dating services have become a popular way to meet partners for real relationships. They’re worth considering, and I’ve been seeing more and more people form lasting relationships this way. Just remember: Play it safe. If you’re going on a date with a stranger, meet for lunch first. Get there and leave there on your own. Don’t give out your address or any other personal information until you know the person better.
Are you more interested in relationships with women than men? The same rules apply. Protect yourself. The only risk you don’t have to worry about is pregnancy. Every sexually transmitted infection can be transmitted from woman to woman.
Are you already an “old married lady”? Because this book is written for women from age twenty-one through thirty-five, we’re addressing the needs of a wide age group. At thirty-five, you may be in a long-term relationship, if not a marriage. You may have children. You are settling into the years of life when you may be happily married or not.
If you are happily married—which one of my patients defines as “I didn’t kill him today . . . ”—there are still going to be stressors. You are not yet an expert at relationships, and neither is your partner. The moments of stress when you feel crazy that you ever married this galumpf, are shared by both of you (which you just cannot believe, and neither can your partner!).
If your dating and sex life is filling you with misery and guilt, it’s time to kick it to the curb. It’s time to set standards for yourself that rule out sex until you know a person, and to limit alcohol consumption too. It’s time for a plan that works for you. Any place or source that gives you a supportive, constructive way to live your life and your relationships is a good stress reducer.
Books? Retreats? Role-model couples? The secret to having a mostly happy long-term relationship or marriage is still a mystery to most of us, but if you refer often to the tips listed on the next page, you’ll have a good chance of moving in the right direction.
Relationships can be your rockiest source of stress. Worrying about meeting the right person, deciding to get married or not, hoping for or avoiding pregnancy, worrying whether you married the right person, trying to get along, learning to grow with another human being, questioning your sexuality, dealing with sexual relationships for the first time, and feeling pressure about sex all take a toll. Every woman shows different signs of stress. Many of us feel it first in the bowels, don’t we? Constipation and diarrhea can both be warning signs that stress is building up.
Close your eyes and pay attention to all of your muscles for a moment. How many of them are tensed up? Start at your shoulders and work your way down, including your butt. Many people tense the butt first when stressed. Review all of the symptoms of stress we’re going to describe here. If more than one applies to you, it’s time to de-stress yourself.
My job as your doctor is not to counsel you about your relationships, but to reduce your stress, which you will feel whether your relationship is a fairy tale or a nightmare. Check back in with this chapter whenever you have relationship difficulties. Those hard times will come and go, and it’s your job to reduce your stress so that it doesn’t weaken your body.
The Abusive Partner
You know by now if your partner is abusive, controlling, or violent. For many women, an abusive relationship starts with a partner who is excessively attentive. S/he sends flowers more than once a day after one date, starts planning the future immediately, or begins to edge your friends out of the picture. The romance of it all can sweep you off your feet, like in a movie, until you realize that your pedestal is really a cage.
You need help. Don’t try to handle this on your own. Talk to your friends and family first, and listen carefully. See what they can do to help. For example, if you have decided that this partner cannot or will not change, you will need a place to stay, perhaps, or legal advice, or help with children, or even help from the police department.
If your partner is violent, you’re going to need special help to keep yourself and your children safe. A violent person very often is enraged by a restraining order, for example, so you’ve got to know how to stay safe after you get one. This is why you need a little team in place—lawyer, family, friends, police—because unfortunately you, like many thousands and thousands of women before you, wound up with the wrong partner.
You’ll notice that every time you go to a doctor’s appointment or hospital, somebody or some sign will ask you if you are safe at home. I hope this is a good reminder that your health care provider or hospital is also a good place to turn to if you do not feel safe. Hospital social workers can help you to find the resources you need to get the help you deserve. Don’t worry—the hospital social worker is not going to charge you for these services.
The one thing you need to know? You have to do something. Few situations are more stressful than being with an abusive partner, so it’s important to get this relationship fixed or ended. The person who yells a lot because that’s how his or her parents resolved their differences may have the potential for change. The person who hits a lot probably does not. But you are much safer working in a team. And please be sure you have some professionals involved.
Real Life fact: Tips for Good Relationships
Make sure that:
• You respect your partner’s character and s/he respects yours.
• You care about your partner’s well-being and s/he care about yours.
• You are both monogamous.
• You know each other well.
• You listen to each other.
• You both remember that you can make mistakes.
• You both know what buttons you can push to upset your partner, and you don’t push them.
• You feel comfortable that you have similar goals for the future.
• You have some balance in your life.
• You have some time to have fun.
• You both like to laugh.
The In-Law Stressor
If you have already found and married your partner, then you are probably very familiar with the stress of dealing with your partner’s parents. We all need a “Beginner’s Guide to In-Laws,” don’t we? Maybe your new family is filled with angels and you fit in like a dream. Maybe you burst into the family acting like the new big sister. Or maybe you nervously avoid the control-freak bossy bosses that they are. Regardless of the situation, there are two essential steps you can take to make it work.
Understand your partner’s mother. She cares about her child’s happiness. Make your partner look happy before you see your in-laws, and you’re all set. You can worship rocks, eat the dog’s breakfast, wreck the family car, and ask Grandma if she’s heard of bikini waxing. . . . If your partner looks happy, acts happy, and you make him or her call Mom more often than usual without ever taking credit, you will be loved. If your partner looks unhappy, there is nothing you can do. Those parents will not like you. Guess which way of life is better?
Understand your partner’s siblings. They’ve known your partner forever, and they don’t want to break up the family team. You represent separation. The best you can do? Go in from the beginning knowing that you are in second place. Don’t try to overwhelm everybody with your accomplishments and your talents. Just ask questions to show your curiosity about your partner’s family. If they want to play a game, play a game. If it’s a game you really can’t play—like football, maybe, not cards—then you can stand by and cheer. Otherwise, play.
Oh, and learn everybody’s names before you meet them.
Did you already get off to a bad start? It’s never too late to try the ideas above. Eventually the family will notice that you’re making a new effort. You can also try the direct approach and invite your in-laws to talk about it. If all of your efforts fail, you’re stuck with a stressful problem, which means you’ll need to focus not on fixing the relationship, but on reducing the impact of the stress on you and your partner.
Your Parents: The Joys and Stresses of Leaving Home
When you leave home to live on your own for the first time, your first and most important relationships change. Your parents—who may have adored you, nurtured you, abused you, taught you, been great role models, been terrible ones—are starting to be in the distance a little bit more. Back in grade school, when you got a good report card, your parents were the first people who saw it. What about now, when you have a bit of nice news, or bad? Chances are you’re not calling home unless nobody else is around.
Are you thrilled to be independent? What a feeling! Each generation of women seems to have its own symbol of the free, single woman in the city. Thanks to cable television, you can still see Mary Tyler Moore throw her past, in the form of a beret, into the sky.
Well, even this great feeling has its stresses. And by the way, have you ever wondered if your parents are as happy as you are? Maybe they’re not. Maybe they miss you—a lot. Maybe they start asking you when you’ll call next or when you’ll be home next. All you want to say is “When I feel like it, you’ll see me.” You manage to say “I love you.” You say you’ll try to be home for Thanksgiving, but you don’t want to go.
Your parents may start to feel like they are losing you. And guess what? This is going to push all kinds of stress buttons for them. Let’s say you want to go skiing with a girlfriend when they had invited you home for the weekend. Let’s say Mom was poor as a young woman and couldn’t afford much. (By the way, apparently all parents were poor when they were young.) Now it gets really complicated. Mom is remembering all the times she went out on dates wearing handmade dresses and sporting hairstyles that her sister cut for her. She starts to see you as a person who lives in a different world—a ski weekend world, a world with money. She wants that for you, but she is deeply hurt that you are turning your back on her. This is especially true if you’re the first child in your family to have a professional-level job or the first to go to college.
You, of course, know absolutely nothing about any of this. This makes Mom think you’re insensitive. Now she’s getting mad: I cleaned up 1.8 acres of vomit from that child, and now she’s too good for me. You are two steps away from having a relationship with One-Word Mom. You know her: “How are you, Mom?” “Fine.” “How’s Dad?” “Fine.” “How’s the weather today?” “Fine.” Now you get completely irritated, and the phone call turns silent. Before you hang up, you’ll sigh, which she will hear, and that will send her right into orbit with anger. Does any of this sound familiar?
Many young women see therapists to help with separation from their parents. That may be very helpful for you, and if the issues are overwhelming, it’s a good idea. But whatever you do, choose to put the brakes on these kinds of downhill slides you have with your parents.
The best way to do that? Information. Let’s assume for the moment that you have had a pretty normal childhood with sane parents. Tell your folks about your plans in advance and talk to them often, at least once a week. If you live some distance away, make sure that four times a year you do something with just your family. If you live nearby, do it more often. If you get resentful over giving up your prime dinnertime, suggest lunch. When Mom suggests that the two of you could bond by cooking together every night, remind her that you really enjoy your lunches where the two of you get to sit down and relax.
Keep your parents informed with little bits of information about your life. You got a raise. You colored your hair. You don’t have to tell them everything. Just give them a steady stream of information and they will be much happier. A parent without information is like a dehydrated camel. Moms especially need enough information to tell their friends something specific about you. Give her a little information, and she can last a long time on that.
On the subject of sex and romance, keep it to yourself. While you love to joke about the horrors of imagining your parents having sex, believe me on this: it is a whole lot worse for your parents to imagine you having sex! Give your folks information about dating and understand that this is your bag of gold. Make it clear that you want to be able to talk about your partners without being judged and without everybody thinking you’re engaged. Then be a little open about your life. It won’t kill you, and it will make your parents very happy.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Table of Contentscontents
welcome to the real life body book! 2
1 meet your body and your doctor 5
2 your head 31
3 stress and your body 57
4 your skin 73
5 your heart 101
6 your blood 125
7 your bones and joints 139
8 your stomach and intestines 155
9 your neck and spine 183
10 your waterworks 199
11 your best sex 221
12 your breasts 251
13 your vagina and cervix 275
14 your ovaries 301
15 your reproductive system 317
16 your fertility 347
17 your diet 365
18 your body’s other issues 393
appendix: tools to use 418