Women experience and react to stress differently from men. 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 problems related to stress 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. Overeating might be a way of trying to find nourishment for emotional needs through food.
The increased stress metabolism leads to more free radical formation and oxidative stress
The classical fight-or-flight response to stress has been written about and researched since the 1960s. 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 youre stressed, might be a modern manifestation of one of the oldest biological stress response systems in human beings.
The mechanics of stress
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 practitioners 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 harassed from trying to balance work and family, feeling stressed if either one suffers. Most women regard themselves as successful only if they have a good family 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 days work and have to cope with home and kids demands. Womens stress levels therefore tend to rise at quitting time, where mens will show a decline.
Womens symptoms of stress include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, overeating, insomnia, digestive problems, rashes and other skin complaints. But the rate of women with heart disease and alcoholism (previously thought of as the mens stress diseases) 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 Crohns 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 eat and store as much as possible for the lean years! Only problem is, youre not facing a famine, youre experiencing too much job, relationship, personal or family stress in your life. 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.
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 bodys 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.
Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB (Pretoria) FRIPH (London) FRCAM (Dublin) MISMA (UK) is a medical doctor with extensive experience in natural and complementary medicine, stress management, wellness and health promotion. She is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Public Health (FRIPH) in London, Fellow of the Royal College of Alternative Medicine (FRCAM) in Dublin and Member of the International Stress Management Association, UK branch. As director of Health Stress Management (Pty) Ltd, Arien acts as wellness advisor and consultant, stress expert and programme developer to the health care industry, companies, interest groups, websites and the media. Arien is an accomplished author of many books, the latest being Stress Solutions (HSM Publishers 2006). She recently launched her relaxation CD especially aimed at newcomers to meditation and relaxation techniques.
She presents regular stress management and natural wellness workshops in South Africa and abroad. Dr van der Merwe is the Founder of the Centre for Health & Wellbeing in Menlo Park, Pretoria. More information: www.HealthStressWellness.com and www.myway2wellness.com
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