• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

Women and Stress

Depression affects women twice as often as men

American women outlive men by an average of 5 years. Weathering childbirth with resilience, more than half of American women with young children manage full-time jobs outside the home, all while also handling primary responsibilities for the majority of household and childcare duties.

Much widely cited research indicates that as women live longer they weather extremely stressful life events -- such as the death of a spouse -- better than men do, says Deborah Belle, professor of psychology and director of the Human Development Program at Boston University.

The attitude that women are the weaker sex belongs in the era of bacon and eggs for daily breakfasts and children traveling in cars without car seats.

"For a long time, we looked at women as the vulnerable sex," Belle says. "I would actually argue that it may be easier to think of men as the more vulnerable sex because of the ways they are at risk."

Still, in the United States, nearly twice as many women (12 percent) as men (6.6 percent) are affected by a depressive disorder each year. Women outnumber men in suffering from all types of anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and generalized anxiety disorder, according to data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2006 and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Women seem to experience many stressors, often in high doses. New programs and research are now seriously addressing women's stress levels and looking at ways to reduce that pressure. In gaining a better understanding of how to help women deal

with stress, it's helpful to look at the ways that stress can affect women differently than men.

Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor's UCLA study introduced a new paradigm for the way that women deal with stress. Instead of "fight or flight", Taylor's study says that women either "tend or befriend" when dealing with stress. To react to stress in this way -- to protect oneself against stressors and to strengthen bonds to friends and family during times of high stress -- can be a very positive coping mechanism.

When men experience stress at work they may ignore their family and be distant. "Women who experience stress at work may be even more solicitous to family members," says Belle.

Studies have also shown differences between the sexes in reactions to a painful stimulus, such as holding the hand in a bucket of cold water for a period of time. Women often shriek and protest more loudly than men, but many men exhibit stronger physiological reactions that indicate that they are physically suffering more, Belle says.

As such, when reading and digesting stress research, experts say the most important question to ask is how is stress measured because a person can respond emotionally, physiologically, behaviorally or intellectually.

Historically, in addition to the differences in stressors and reactions to stress in men and women, stress studies were geared to measure male stress differently than female stress.

All of the stressors tested in research done in the 1970s and earlier were geared toward men, Belle said. Stressors such as rape and family violence were not included in those studies, but war, which was mostly experienced by men, was included.

Stevan E. Hobfoll, distinguished professor and director of the Applied Psychology Center at Kent State University, criticizes research that seems to indicate that women experience fewer stressors than men.

"Women don't go to war very much, buthow many men actually go to war?" Hobfoll says that in some parts of inner-city environments, one of every two women experiences violence or rape, which is much higher than the rate at which men experience these traumas.

Hobfoll also says that measurements of this extreme type of traumatic stress must take into account the differences between the types of violence that men and women often experience. Many times when men experience violence, they are a "co-conspirator" in that they engage in fighting or other dangerous behaviors. There are always some innocent male victims, he says, but it's different for women.

"If you go looking for a fight and get [beaten up], that's different than if you're pulled into an alley and raped," Hobfoll says.

Modern stress levels are often attributed to women's careers, but psychologists' understanding of job-related stress has changed throughout the history of stress research.  In the 1970s, Belle says that the jobs that were seen as stressful were high-level careers in which people had to make important decisions, such as a heart surgeon or Supreme Court justice.

These perceptions have changed in the past few decades, however. Current thinking takes into account the benefits of those high-level careers. Belle points out that Supreme Court justices, for example, have excellent health benefits, have assistants who are in-demand and highly educated and receive a great deal of respect in their jobs. Belle says that a better way of looking at the stress level of a job is to determine what the demands are and what resources are given to an individual to meet these demands. A secretary may have fewer resources and receive less respect, which makes that job more stressful.

Economic and job-related issues are two of the biggest modern stressors, affecting men as well as women. Adults in the United States are working more hours per week with fewer supports built into their lives. The danger of jobs being outsourced and the "lack of economic security" add to the stress of most Americans, both male and female, Belle says.

"It is not only women who suffer," says Belle. "It is people of all types. [Our culture] is destructive of a sense of community and destructive of a sense of security."

Anne Bartolotta, manager of the Health Education Centers at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park agrees. She says that some of our modern stress stems from the speed at which our world changes.

"We are going to see as much dramatic change in the next few years as our grandparents saw in their whole lifetime," Bartolotta says. "It's a 24/7 world. For people who work, work is no longer an eight-hour job."

In addition to work outside the home, much of the primary responsibilities of childcare still fall on American women.

"Women are still much more likely to be hit with the pickup of little Tommy or Sally and getting dinner on the table," Hobfoll says. Working women spend 16 to 20 hours per week more on care of children and family than men do. Men are "helping," but women remain primary caregivers, which is where a lot of stress stems from, Hobfoll says.

Belle agrees.

"At this point in our history, women get a lot of responsibility for childcare#and single mothers have sole responsibility," Belle says. "For that reason, issues of childcare responsibility fall on women more than men."

Childcare worries can also affect the career of women, "impeding a woman's career and earning power" unless a workplace is extraordinarily supportive, according to Belle.

Bartolotta also says that as more adults wait until later in life to start families, they may face raising young children and caring for ailing elderly parents at the same time, which can compound the amount of stress everyone, but especially women, face. She calls this the "sandwich generation."

"[Women] are the#nurturers," Bartolotta says. "Men are maybe sometimes better able to compartmentalize. Women internalize and take on the stress of others."

Bartolotta says that this amount of stress without proper life balance and management can lead women to develop stress-related illnesses at a young age.

In fact, women are now being cautioned that excessive stress can cause headaches, depression, panic disorders, unhealthy weight gain or loss, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

The thing that makes stress such a nebulous and difficult problem is that the effects are not always as pronounced as those listed. "I see women who don't have any energy and don't have that zest for life," Bartolotta says.

It's easy to see where this exhaustion comes from, especially when the pressure on women to adhere to a certain physical ideal is piled on top of family and job stress.

In Hobfoll's research and work, he finds that another major stressor of women is the pressure to be deemed physically attractive in addition to career success, motherhood and all of the other stressors most Americans experience.

"Women are supposed to be bright, talented and look like supermodels," Hobfoll says.

Hobfoll adds that Americans#and in some ways, especially American women#suffer from "Superbowl Syndrome."

"It used to be great if your team went to the Superbowl," Hobfoll says. "Now, the Bears are nothing because they didn't win the Superbowl. If you didn't get the golden ring, you didn't make it. Now, it's not good enough to be a model, you have to be a supermodel. If you're not even a model, you're nothing.

"Every woman sees [herself] as a deviation from the 36-24-36 ideal," Hobfoll says of the feelings many women internalize from looking at celebrity-driven media and fashion magazines. "Men don't have those numbers to live up to in many ways."

In this country, Belle says that we are on a treadmill, and we're not getting ahead. "We all have electronic toys, but the really expensive things#health care, childcare#are through the roof," she says.

Other societies have universal health care and higher education payment assistance to help alleviate that type of stress. Americans don't have those luxuries.

The experts agree that the increased attention to this area of study will help to further aid women in coping with stress and reducing its negative effects.

"I don't think there's ever enough work that Ways to relieve stress:

Anne Bartolotta, who is certified in stress management and teaches seminars on lifestyle and behavioral effects on stress, leads the annual Little Company of Mary Hospital and Health Care Centers Women's Wellness Weekend retreat, which is in its 22nd year.

"Seeing how the women walk in the door on Friday and leave on Sunday is amazing,"   Bartolotta says. These are some of the stress relief techniques she teaches:

Self-talk #Look at what is within your control and what is not within your control, advises Bartolotta. "Ask 'Is this reality for me? Is this something I need help with?'"

Solitude#Bartolotta says that one of the things the women who attend her retreats tend to enjoy the most is having the opportunity to spend time alone. She says that it's important for women to take a few moments for themselves on a daily basis.

Humor#"Lighten up!" says Bartolotta. Humor is helpful to put daily life stresses in perspective.

Exercise -- "You have a sense of accomplishment, and you have more energy" when you exercise, Bartolotta advises. She tells women in the programs that having an "exercise buddy" is an especially good system because it gives them someone to be accountable to and also becomes a social outlet. She recommends yoga as one activity that provides physical exertion and also techniques to manage feelings of anxiety.

Nutrition -- Bartolotta says that women tend to "stew and chew" when stressed. "We put unhealthy things into our bodies and sometimes into our children's bodies," she says. High blood pressure, weight, family risk and diabetes all result from the bad habit of stress eating, she says.

Ask for help -- "Women are the caretakers," Bartolotta says. "They put everyone's needs in front of their own." The fact that women tend to discuss these problems with other people can help them to cope. Keeping stress, frustration and anger inside, can be dangerous and have negative implications for one's mental and physical health. o can be done in this area," Bartolotta says.

Published: April 03, 2007
Issue: Spring 2007