Women and Stress
Women experience and react to stress differently than men do, with very specific stress related health challenges
Both men and women experience stress with its related health problems and risk implications. Most, if not all illnesses and ailments have an underlying current of long term stress at the source.
Some health challenges related to stress, however, affect only women:
- stress can disrupt your menstrual cycle – from severe cramps (dysmenorrhoea) and premenstrual syndrome, to infertility and a difficult menopause.
- stress can play a role at the onset of migraine headaches, making the experience even worse
- women who sacrifice their own needs for others’ end up feeling resentful, stressed and done in.
- weight gain and difficulty maintaining healthy weight is a common concern in women over 35 years of age. Underlying stress from deeply buried unconscious emotions, plays an important role. As do increased cortisol levels, insulin resistance and metabolic rate. Overeating might be a way of trying to find nourishment for emotional needs through food, or may be due to an underlying need for protection and safety. The stress reaction of cold and hunger, is a very deeply ingrained survival response some people have when subconscious stress is experienced.
- the increased stress metabolism leads to more free radical formation and oxidative stress, which accelerates the ageing process, as well as being an important cause in all physical diseases and ailments. This is also the reason why long term stress over many years, will be visible as advanced ageing of the skin with wrinkles at a younger age, as well as physical diseases like osteoarthritis, heart disease, menopause with severe symptoms, depression, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer.
The classical fight-or-flight response to stress has been written about and researched since the 1960’s. Recent research added another perspective to the stress response. Women react differently under stress than men do: using the ‘tend-and-befriend’ response, as coined by Shelly Taylor, PhD. Women (and female animals form all species) experiencing stress tend to nurture themselves and their young and form bonds with others. Women also have the classical fight-or-flight response under stress, but the tend-and-befriend response seems to take effect during long term chronic stress, with women responding differently from men. Female animals need to protect their young in a stressful situation – as did our ancestors and ourselves even today, when physically threatened. Fleeing too soon might leave a young animal defenseless.
Hormonal factors in the two sexes also play a role in the different reactions to stress. Males under stress produce androgens such as testosterone (making them more aggressive when under stress) in addition to stress hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. Studies suggest that women produce oxytocin, which produces a feeling of relaxation, reduces fear, and decreases some components of the fight-or-flight response. Oxytocin is also involved in childbirth and social interaction. In the past, stress behaviour like aggression and withdrawal have been studied, while important behaviors like bonding and affiliation, have been totally overlooked. Calling on your friends when you’re stressed, might be a modern manifestation of one of the oldest biological stress response systems in human beings.
When pregnant, it is important to spend more time in quiet relaxation and contemplation. The all important receptors for serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter, are being formed in the developing fetus. Rushing around, trying to do everything, keeping all the balls in the air, stressing yourself out, will ultimately harm your baby and prevent him or her from the health enhancing, inborn ability to relax and feel at peace.
The mechanics of stress in women
Stress can be positive or negative. When stress sparks personal achievement, it can work to your benefit by making you enthusiastic, creative and productive, motivating you. But stress can easily spiral out of control, becoming negative and taking a toll on your physical and emotional health and wellbeing.
Stress is not an illness, but it can lead to specific medical symptoms, often serious enough to send women to the emergency room or their health care practitioner’s office. According to the American Psychological Association, 43% of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and 75 – 90 % of all visits to a doctor are stress related. Women are experiencing more stress at every stage of their lives than ever before. Juggling professional life, education needs, family schedules, money issues, career advancement, child- and elder-care concerns are only a few of the common stress triggers confronting women.
Women have other stress concerns than men. Women often feel overwhelmed, trying to balance work and family, feeling guilty and anxious if either one suffers. Most women regard themselves as successful only if they have a good family, relationship and career life. Men, on the other hand, will feel good about themselves even if only their careers are going well. Most women return home to a second stint after the day’s work and have to cope with home and kids’ demands. Women’s stress levels therefore tend to rise at quitting time, where men’s will show a decline. Women’s symptoms of stress include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, overeating, insomnia, digestive problems, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, rashes and other skin complaints. The rate of women with heart disease and alcoholism (previously thought of as the men’s stress diseases) also show an alarming increase.
Working mothers, regardless of whether they are married or single, face higher stress levels than men in the workplace as well as at home. Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems
Stress can cause a variety of physical ailments, from headache to symptoms that mimic a heart attack. In addition, stress can cause depression and anxiety. Stress might even trigger illness, such as high blood pressure, eczema and asthma.
Stress puts you into red alert flight-or-fight mode. The stress hormones (from the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys) adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol course through your blood stream, leading to various physiological responses:
- your body’s need for oxygen increases resulting in an increased breathing rate
- your heart rate and blood pressure go up to get blood with oxygen and nutirents to muscles and bones
- your thyroid gland secretes more thyroid hormones to accelerate the metabolism needed for the stress response
- the blood vessels in your skin constrict, preventing oxygen and nutrients to reach the many layers of the skin
- your muscles tense, your joints and ligaments are prepared, ready for running away or fighting
- your blood sugar level increases (supplied by glycogen in the liver under command of the hormone, glucagon from the pancreas and also adrenalin) to supply more glucose for the energy demands of the stress reaction
- your blood has an increased tendency to clot to stop the expected bleeding from the supposedly inflicted wound threatening your survival
- your body’s cells release stored fat into the bloodstream, also for energy
This is a wonderful survival response when your life is in danger. The body copes well with short periods of intense stress balanced by periods of rest. The exhaustion of the stress organs set in when stress becomes chronic. When you constantly feel stressed out, tense, burnt-out, anxious, the frequent trigger of the stress response puts a severe strain on your heart, artery linings, adrenal glands and all the systems of your body. If you have a family tendency for heart disease, stress might precipitate early cardiovascular disease. Women often have digestive problems. The stress response redirect blood from the digestive system to the muscles, leaving the bowel and stomach nutrient and oxygen deficient. If genetically prone or with a specific digestive system weakness, women with constant anxiety and stress, will experience digestive problems such as spastic colon (irritable bowel syndrome), peptic ulcers, indigestion, gastritis, leaky gut, constipation, candidiasis, even ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. The gut is often called the second brain. All disease processes can be linked to stress in this way.
Stress can even cause weight gain, especially around the abdomen. The stress hormone, cortisol is a powerful appetite stimulant and fat manufacturer. This is good when faced with a famine or long periods of intense cold: eat and store as much as possible for the lean years and to form a protective layer against the cold! Only problem is, you’re not facing a famine or cold, you’re experiencing too much job, relationship, personal or family stress in your life, or a deep need for protection against others in relationship. Fat is then deposited around the abdomen, a ready source of stored energy when famine threatens. This is the fat distribution of the wellknown apple shaped figure associated with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. Chronically high levels of cortisol actually stimulate the fat cells inside the abdomen to fill with more fat. As you age, your expanding waistline can be life threatening. Or women might struggle to lose weight, because of the cold and hunger stress reaction of survival, when the body experiences your deeply unconscious emotions of feeling unprotected, as a reason to form more fat as protection against the cold and hunger, huge threats to survival for ancient human beings. Rather than blaming your body for doing what it’s programmed to do, be grateful and appreciate your body, and work on releasing the old, unserving emotional baggage that makes you feel, albeit unconsciously, that you need fat for protection. This can be a wonderful healing journey in which you learn how to release all the past injuries and hurts, living freely and lightly.
Too much stress can also affect your immune system, weakening it and making you more susceptible to colds, coughs and infections. Stress activates the endocrine (hormonal) system which can lead to changes in the immune system, weakening the body’s defense against infection and diseases like cancer. Studies of women with breast cancer have shown significantly higher rates of cancer among women who have experienced traumatic life events (e.g. loss of a loved one, divorce) several years before their disease was diagnosed. Stress management can support immune function and heart health, proving effective in the treatment of nearly all diseases and ailments.
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