How Stress Affects Women's Health
We often hear the phrase “I don’t know how she does it” when referring to today’s busy woman. But while she may actually be “doing it all,” she may also be dealing with a great deal of stress—and the health effects that come with it.
Stress for women, in fact, is on the rise, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association. Not only were women more likely to report having stress, almost 50% of those surveyed reported that their stress had increased over the past five years, compared to 39% of men.
Of course, we can’t get away from some level of everyday stress, and truth is, we wouldn’t want to. It’s what keeps us going and, like red wine, in small doses can actually be good for us, helping us to perform strenuous tasks, handle an emotional crisis, or fight infection. But continued stress increases the risk of significant disease—including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and cancer—and results in exhaustion.
The good (and bad) news is the body lets us know when it’s time to pay attention to our stress level. It responds to stress by releasing hormones, which are what increase our blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels.
Some of the day-to-day signs of stress include:
- Upset stomach
- Stomach cramping or bloating
- Poor concentration
- Loss of appetite
- Binge eating
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Acne and other skin problems
- Disrupted sleep or insomnia
- Loss of sexual desire
And stress has some unique effects on women. Stress might reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This may be because stress can affect the function of your hypothalamus, an area of your brain that controls the hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle. As a result, you may stop menstruating and ovulating. But rest assured, regular menstrual periods usually resume after your stress decreases.
Everyone reacts to stress differently, and coping patterns can be positive or negative. While men have been found to cope with stress through distraction or escape with a relaxing activity, it may be no surprise that women tend to cope by taking care of others or drawing support from family and friends. You may find yourself coping by overeating, watching too much TV, indulging in retail therapy, or screaming at the cat. Whatever your pattern, you can start to tame your stress with a few tips:
Slow down. While it may sound counterintuitive, pausing to take a step back to evaluate what’s on your plate and make a plan can help increase your productivity.
Stay calm. Meditation and yoga can help bring about balance and an overall sense of calm. For a quick fix, try lightly running one or two fingers over your lips to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the mind and body.
Say no. You only have so many hours in the day, so it’s important to protect your own time. Set boundaries when it comes to work and family. Similarly, ask for (or hire) help with tasks like household chores to help reserve your energy.
Keep yourself healthy. Women are more likely than men to report eating as a way of managing stress. They also tend to exercise less because they “are just too tired.” But exercise and eating well are vital to stress management, helping to limit fatigue, depression, tension and anxiety.
Listen. Escape into music or the outdoors to take the edge off and transport yourself somewhere else. Strap on your iPod, or listen to the lyrical notes of nature on a good, long hike.
Laugh. You can’t always control what’s causing your stress, but you can control your response to it. Laughter heats up and then cools down your stress response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, leaving you relaxed. So try a good laugh (even a fake one works) when stress strikes next.
Talk. Find a friend you trust to talk things through or just distract you from the current crisis. Better yet, find a funny friend, and have a laugh together.