How Is Stress Different In Women?
We know that stress is our body’s reaction to danger, both immediate and chronic. A 2000 study revealed that women and men may have a different reaction and sensitivity to stress.
While men usually react to stress by the “fight or flight” response, women tend to do the opposite: instead of fleeing from the dangerous situation, they try to react to the dangerous situation by forming bonds with other people, which got the nickname “tend or befriend” response.
This difference in sexes is suggested to be an evolutionary development, as in the distant past, women were the primary caregivers and had to provide for their children first, whereas men were the hunters who usually had to react fast in a dangerous situation.
Whether or not this theory is true, we know that, on average, women are more stressed than men, which suggests that they are more susceptible to the adverse effects of stress.
These adverse effects are both physiological and mental, and can be categorized into the following 7 categories:
1. Stomach Issues
Many women report that they either lose appetite or start eating more (usually junk and comfort foods) when they’re stressed. This may change, too: one situation can upset your stomach, whereas another can make you eat more.
Irrespective of the changes in diet, the most common stomach issues caused by stress are:
- Changes in weight
A 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in System Neuroscience even suggested that stress can cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
2. Heart Problems
Chronic stress raises the amount of adrenaline and cortisol in blood, both of which are hormones associated with hypertension. This can have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system and may contribute to stroke and heart attack.
Also, some studies associate stress with changes in blood clotting, which also increases the risk of a heart attack.
3. Skin Reactions
Your skin, hair and nails are especially sensitive to stress. This is likely because of the hormonal changes due to stress, and every woman who ever had a hormonal breakout knows very well what hormones can do to the skin. The most-common skin reactions include:
- Rosacea and psoriasis flare-ups
- Hives or rash
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
Luckily, the symptoms of these conditions tend to subside when the stressful period is over, but do take into account that you will have to take better care of your skin and use gentle and non-irritating skin care products when you know you're stressed.
4. Disrupted Sleep
Consistently high levels of cortisol in the blood, a signature feature of chronic stress, affect the so-called HPA loop, which is a relationship between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland.
Unfortunately, the same loop controls our sleep cycles, so when you're stressed and the HPA loop is too active, you often feel tired, yet unable to fall asleep. Furthermore, even the quality of sleep decreases as the transition between the various sleep cycles is disrupted.
5. Emotional Disturbances
Chronic stress can cause a variety of emotional disturbances and even mental illness:
- Mood swings
- Compulsive behavior (such as addiction).
As alarming as it may sound, there is even a study that showed that higher levels of anger are commonly linked to both mental stress and even the likelihood of a stress-related heart attack.
6. Difficulty Concentrating and Memory Issues
Researchers found that certain hormones secreted after a stressful event can potentially impair memory and concentration. Also, an animal study found that stressed rats had more memory issues than the non-stressed control group.
The same is suggested to occur in humans, as many patients report that they have difficulties focusing or remembering important information when they're stressed.
7. Lowered Immunity
The American Psychological Association suggests that stressful events and negative emotional experiences can take a toll on your immune system, which can make you more susceptible to a cold, but also to any other infectious disease.
They conclude that managing stress is crucial for you to regain your ability to fight off germs. The next section is exactly about that, the most basic lifestyle change you can make to be less stressed.
How To Deal With Stress
Therapy and medications can certainly get you through a stressful period in your life, but the following changes in lifestyle can also significantly improve your stress symptoms:
1. Improve your diet
When you’re stressed out and you have no time to do anything, you’re more likely to settle for a snack or junk food instead of a healthy and nutritious meal.
You have to resist this urge and try to improve your diet, include more leafy greens and colorful vegetables in your diet, as in the past years there is more and more scientific evidence suggesting that a healthy diet can help you fight anxiety and depression, and, certainly, stress.
2. Make time for exercise
When you exercise and spend more time outdoors, your brain releases chemicals associated with happiness and wellbeing, such as the neurochemical oxytocin, the levels of which drop dramatically during stressful periods in your life.
So, lift your mood while you’re getting in shape by normalizing your oxytocin levels.
3. Find fun ways to relax
Women often seek connection and meaning in life when they feel stressed, and what your gut tells you is exactly what you should do, in this case.
Distracting yourself by doing activities that require a lot of concentration is another effective method of fighting off stress, as reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2017.
So, find or rediscover your old hobby, participate in engaging conversations with family and friends and just do something meaningful.
Let’s end our list of recommendations on a happy note and with a non-trivial tip. It turns out that hugs, especially long hugs lasting up to 20 seconds, may have the same effect on your brain as a morning jog, as reported in a 2018 study. Like exercise, hugs raise the levels of oxytocin in blood, which may just be enough to compensate for that stressful day at work.
In this specific article, we mentioned just some selected treatments of stress. We have a separate dedicated article on stress and anxiety management, which highly recommend to read as well.