By Nick Cesare
Being stressed is never fun, and in some cases an be crippling. When I’m stressed, it becomes hard for me to concentrate, I’m irritable, and my stress seems to compound on its source, making it look like there’s no end in sight. To some extent, this is true for both women and men. Everybody feels some stress and, according to psychologists, having a little stress in our lives is good for us. It helps us to stay on our toes and is a necessary symptom of setting challenging goals for ourselves.
We all know that chronic stress is bad, but what you might not know is that it affects women in both greater numbers and different ways than it does men. Ohio University reports that 51 percent of women feel the negative effects of chronic stress, compared to 43 percent of men.
There are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal. First, it’s important to know the physical effects of stress because of the stigma surrounding ailments that seem to be psychological in nature. Both people who suffer from stress and some medical professionals don’t take stress-related symptoms seriously because they mistakenly believe that stress is either all in the mind or can be thought away. Second, it fits into a trend where women are taken less seriously in healthcare situations.
In order to combat the stigma and develop solutions for the healthcare industry, we need to understand how stress manifests physically, why it affects women to a greater extent than men, and what can be done to manage stress before it gets out of hand.
Stress on the Mind is Stress on the Body
Only in recent years have doctors begun to explore and accept the tightly knit relationship between mental and physical health. Mental unwellness contributes to physical unwellness and vice versa — when it comes to your mental health, stress is the sprained joint of the mind.
Some of the symptoms of stress are probably common to most of our experiences: poor concentration, poor memory, and mood swings all accompany stressful times. What is less well-known are the physical effects that can also accompany stress. These can include things like high blood pressure, weakened immune system, and sexual dysfunction. When you are stressed and your body’s defenses aren’t at their best, that increases your risk of catching a cold or the flu, having a heart attack, or even developing cancer. Secondary effects of stress like difficulty sleeping can also have an impact on overall heart health.
These are some ways that stress can affect anyone, but it also manifests in unique ways in women. Chronic stress can mess with your hormone levels, which can lead to irregular periods, acne breakouts, and infertility.
The good news about stress is that, as long as you catch it soon enough, its symptoms will disappear as your mental health improves.
Why are Women Stressed?
Much of what I have to say here will probably not come as a surprise to most readers, especially women. Most people have a few stressors in common. Almost all of us will be bogged down by things like work, relationship trouble, and finances at some point in our lives. However, many women will have to contend with these challenges in addition to other stressors, many of which have to do with the place occupied by women in today’s society.
I mentioned work as a common stressor, but many women face unique challenges in the office. They struggle to be heard relative to their male colleagues, must work harder to prove themselves in management positions, and aren’t always paid what they deserve.
In their personal lives, many women have to deal with sexism from friends or family and catcalling from strangers. Add to this the complicated position that women occupy in today’s world, where they are taking hold of their careers like never before in history but are still expected to fulfill the role of caregiver in the household.
Finally, when you tack on the cost of being a woman, it’s not hard to see why women might be more stressed on average than men. Facing additional barriers that men don’t have to overcome can be a source of stress and anxiety in and of itself. These are issues that underscore the need for better social policies that address gender equality.
Taking a Chill Pill for Your Mental Health
So we’re all a little stressed. Or maybe a lot stressed. What can we do about that? Here’s where the good news starts coming — I guarantee that you’re going to love just about every anti-stress technique out there. Here are some things to try out:
- Yoga and other forms of exercise — Yoga is awesome because it helps to keep your body healthy while also relaxing your mind. If you have other activities that relax you, those are great too. You might try something like hiking, swimming, or going for a leisurely bike ride.
- Reading and writing — Both of these activities stimulate the mind and help to keep our attention off the things that are stressing us out. Writing about the things that bug you can be cathartic, or you can lose yourself in another world by cracking open a good book.
- Cultivate a positive environment — I don’t know much about feng shui, but I do know that having my apartment clean and organized helps me to stay relaxed. Other things like keeping workspaces well-lit can contribute to a calming environment, since light levels can affect our moods.
- Hang out with people who support you — If there are people in your life who are constantly trying to bring you down or pick fights, they are almost certainly not helping you relax. Finding people who support you doesn’t necessary mean finding people who agree with you on everything. Just try to find friends who care about your mental health and support each other.
Mental health should always be a priority, perhaps even a bigger one than physical health. By identifying the harm that stress does and working out techniques that help us deal with our individual stressors, hopefully we can all contribute to a more relaxed world.
Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, Idaho. After completing his Masters in medical ethics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he enjoys writing on difficult subjects in healthcare, especially as they disproportionately affect women. You can follow him on Twitter @cesare_nick