Frazzled by stress? Learn how it affects your emotional and physical health — and how to cope.
stress is an expression of the body’s natural instinct to protect itself. While the stress response may warn us of immediate danger, like a fast-approaching car, prolonged stress can negatively affect your physical and emotional health.
“Our stress response was exquisitely honed over millions of years as a protective mechanism,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, chairman of the American Institute of Stress (AIS) and a clinical professor of medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla. “That was okay for our ancestors who ran into saber-toothed tigers. The tragedy is that today, it’s not that, but hundreds of things, like getting stuck in traffic jams. And our bodies respond in the same unfortunate fashion, with hypertension, strokes, and ulcers.”
How Does Stress Affect a Woman’s Mind and Body?
While men and women can react similarly in many situations, stressful or otherwise, there does seem to be some difference in how men and women react to stress. While the exact mechanisms aren’t clear, and findings are conflicting, some research suggests that differences in the brain and body may make women more physically and emotionally sensitive to certain types of stress.
“Women tend to react to stress differently than men,” says Dr. Rosch. “They don’t respond with the fight or flight response — they’re more apt to negotiate.”
In previous research, psychologists have called this the “tend and befriend” response. This may have come about, theorize scientists, because it would have been evolutionarily adaptive for women to protect offspring rather than attack or flee from predators.
The “tend and befriend” response, some think, may be mediated by oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone produced in women during childbirth, breast-feeding, and in both sexes during orgasm and other moments of human connection. This hormone may help women more than men, according to Rosch.
Studies have shown that frequent hugs from a partner can increase levels of oxytocin — and lower levels of blood pressure — in women. Research has also found that women who have positive contact with a partner before a stressful situation show lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower heart rates.
How Does Stress Affect a Woman’s Health?
The particular challenges that women face at home, in society, and at work may increase the amount of stress you experience.
“Your stress may vary, but if you have stress with your work, your kids, your neighbors, and marriage all at once, that’s a big deal,” says Lori Heim, MD, past president and chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a physician at Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg, North Carolina. “In women, I see this in changes in menstrual patterns — nothing else is going on except a huge increase in stress, and all of a sudden, they may be losing their hairor having menstrual irregularities, and everything points to stress as a factor.”
According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, the effects of stress on women’s physical and emotional health can range from headaches to stomach trouble to back pain. Specific stress effects include:
Stomach Ailments Stress can make you reach for junk or comfort foods, or upset your stomach to the point that you feel like you can’t eat. Common stress-related stomach troubles include cramps, bloating, heartburn, and — according to a study published in November 2017 in the journal Frontiers in System Neuroscience — even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects more women than men. Depending on how you respond, these can lead to weight loss or weight gain.
Skin Reactions Stress can lead to breakouts, and even itchy rashes and hives in some people.
Emotional Conditions From being in a blue or irritable mood to more serious mental issues, like depression, your emotional health suffers when there’s stress in your life.
Sleep Problems Trouble falling or staying asleep is common in women affected by stress, and this is particularly counterproductive since a good night’s sleep can help ease stress.
Difficulty Concentrating Stress makes it hard to focus and be effective in your responsibilities at home or work, and that can compound your problems if the stress comes from your job to begin with.
Heart Trouble Stress can negatively affect the entire cardiovascular system, and while it doesn’t directly cause high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack, it can definitely contribute to them.
Lowered Immune Response One of the more complicated physical reactions to stress is your body’s lessened ability to fight off disease, whether it’s a cold or a flare-up of a chronic condition.
How Can Women Lower Stress Levels?
In a survey of 3,000 people, Robert Epstein, PhD, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California, found that 25 percent of happiness hinges on how well you handle stress. And what was the most important stress management strategy he noticed? Planning — or anticipating what’s going to stress you out — and having the tools in place to tamp down the tension. Here are some more tips for managing stress:
Improve your diet. By eating well-balanced meals and skipping junk food, you can improve your physical well-being and, in turn, your emotional health.
Make time for exercise. “We do know that exercise is a phenomenal way of dealing with stress and depression,” says Dr. Heim. Research shows that getting active can lift your spirits by increasing hormones and neurochemicals that can improve your mood.
Find fun ways to relax. Connect with family and friends and people you enjoy being around. Rediscover favorite hobbies — research published in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry has linked pursuits that require focus, like crafting, drawing, or even home repairs, with stress-reducing effects. Other popular stress-busters include yoga, meditation, and tai chi.
Finally, if you feel overwhelmed by stress and its effects, talk to your doctor about ways to deal with it. You may learn new techniques for managing stress on your own, or you may find that therapy with a mental health professional will better help you to get it all under control.