Health Conditions

Women And Stress: The Positive Handling Of A Negative Life Dimension

The fact is, stress has always been with us, since our ancestors were hunting and gathering, being constantly vigilant for Saber Tooth Tigers around every dark corner. Because such circumstances were common in our evolutionary past, our DNA has an instinctive mechanism called the fight or flight response, named because of the way our bodies reacts to stress. Immediate physiological responses, mediated by the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, prepare the human body for this fight or flight, by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. In fact, blood flow can increase 300 to 400 % in order to prepare the legs, brain and lungs for the added demands of either fighting off a physical threat, or running to safety.

The problem, however, is that this system now often operates inappropriately in our modern world. Although traffic jams, deadlines, complex family problems are usually not life threatening, the flight or flight response is activated anyway when we feel we are losing control of the situation around us.

This feeling of stress, that over time allows the repetition of fight or flight, can often start to alter our everyday physiology and health. And women, according to most medical, neuropsychiatric and psychological research, appear more prone to complex stress responses, mainly because not only do women have the fight or flight response, they also have the tend and befriend response.

This response is simply to reach out to their support systems, friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues – which ameliorates for a time the chronic, as well as acute, stress issues to which they react initially. But does this stress return? It may, and with deleterious results if anti-stress strategies are not put in place. The results of two recent studies depict how ubiquitous and essentially how severe stress can be on women, as regards work/life balance.

In 2013, a survey was conducted by the American Psychological Association. There are many more statistics than are quoted below, but these appear to be the benchmarks that depict the serious issue of women and stress.

  • According to the APA, which surveyed 1,501 employed adults, women are more likely to report that they feel tense during work (37 percent of women versus 33 percent of men) and less likely to feel there are enough opportunities for internal career advancement (35 percent of women versus 43 percent of men)
  • Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache (41 percent vs. 30 percent), having felt as though they could cry (44 percent vs. 15 percent), or having had an upset stomach or indigestion (32 percent vs. 21 percent) in the past month.
  • Only 33 percent of women report being successful in their efforts to get enough sleep (compared with 75 percent who believe this is important);
  • Only 35 percent report success in their efforts to manage stress (compared with 69 percent who believe this is important);
  • 36 percent report success in their efforts to eat healthy (compared with 64 percent who believe this is important);
  • Only 29 percent are successful in their efforts to be physically active (compared with 54 percent who believe this is important).

And, a 2012 study by the Families and Work Institute found that nearly 50 percent of American women feel they don’t have enough free time, for family, for themselves, creating an increase in stress which can then lead to a rise in cortisol, the hormone that dictates the fight or flight response.

All of these stats and many more lead to the conclusion that chronic and acute stress is common in women, possibly because they are not totally aware of the how it begins. But, they will certainly be aware of its often radical consequences.

Below are some physical consequences of chronic stress.

Heart Disease. Sudden changes in heart rate and increased demands on the cardiovascular system can precipitate angina even increase one’s risk for a fatal heart attack. Repetitive increases in blood pressure can damage the inner lining of the artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis.

Stroke. Prolonged or frequent episodes of stress can gradually worsen high blood pressure, affecting the cardiovascular system and the arteries that lead to the brain, thus increasing the risk of stroke.

Depressed Immune System. Prolonged exposure to stress can blunt the immune system response, increasing the risk for colds and more serious infections

Weight and Body-Fat Changes. Chronic stress can cause either a loss in appetite and weight loss or an increase in cravings for fat, sugar and salt, which leads to weight gain. A recent study suggested that chronic stress could cause abdominal fat accumulation in otherwise thin women. The researchers attributed this fat accumulation to an increased secretion of the hormone cortisol, which is released during stress – some release more cortisol than others. Central distribution of fat increases one’s risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Insomnia. Chronic stress makes it difficult for people to get a restful night’s sleep, which interferes with the body’s mechanisms for recovering and repairing itself. A lack of sleep can also worsen psychological stress and prevent one from recognizing problems and dealing with them rationally.

Migraines. Studies have suggested that migraine attacks occur more frequently when one is under increased levels of stress.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A strong correlation has been associated between stress and IBS.

Women and Stress

Even though there are multiple other physical diseases and psychological disorders associated with chronic and acute stress, there are still lifestyle changes anyone can take to relieve stress. Here are just a very few of the most important, especially #3.

There may be particular situations, people or events that make you feel nervous, anxious or fearful, keep a journal. Record your physical symptoms and how you are feeling.

  1. Determine what is causing stress in your life. There may be particular situations, people or events that make you feel nervous, anxious or fearful, keep a journal. Record your physical symptoms and how you are feeling.
  1. Strengthen your support system and communicate with family and friends. Most people who are able to cope well with stress have strong social support networks with family, friends and even pets.
  1. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when someone asks you to do something you do NOT have time for. Learn your limits. You can’t be all things to all people all of the time. Don’t be reluctant to ask for help. Avoid combining too many projects. Delegate if necessary
  1. Simplify your life. This means restructuring your priorities. Evaluate what activities are most important, and get rid of the ones that aren’t. You will feel less worn out and more rested. You’ll also have more free time to spend with family, friends or even to be by yourself.
  1. Improve lifestyle habits. Increasing physical activity and eating healthy can do wonders for your ability to manage stress. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet can improve weight, energy levels, self-confidence, and overall health and well-being, making it much easier for you to handle daily stressors. 
  1. Laugh! Did you know that laughter is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress? No matter how bad things are, laughing dissolves tension and seems to help brighten the situation. Try not to take things too seriously – a negative mood only adds to your level of stress. Another plus – laughter seems to help boost the immune system, making you less prone to developing colds and other infections.
  1. Take a media break or a news fast. Research has shown that the emotional content of the news can affect mood and aggravate sadness and depression.
  1. Try mind-body exercises such as breath work, meditation, yoga and biofeedback.

And finally, probably one of the most difficult yet necessary lessons to put into practice is learning that leisure time must be considered a necessity, not a luxury, for good mental and physical health. This time could involve doing anything that is personally relevant, or maybe sometimes irrelevant, but nonetheless creating a sense of peace, agency, and sanctuary. Leisure time allows the stressed woman to re-evaluate, renew and re-balance, allowing stressful situations to become manageable, more of a positive reinforcer than a negative motivator.

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Susan Kime

Susan Kime

Susan Kime is a contributor to Women's Health. She has a PhD in clinical psychology.