What Is It?
Stressors are the external events, including pressures in people’s lives, such as divorce, marriage, children, and work and money pressures. The experience of stress, however, is related to how you respond to these stressors.

Stress can be your friend or your foe. When stress fuels the spark of personal achievement, it can work to your benefit by making you more perceptive and productive, acting as a motivator and even making you more creative. But when stress flames out of control—as it often does for many of us—it can take a terrible toll on your physical and emotional health, as well as your relationships.

While stress is not considered an illness, it can cause specific medical symptoms, sometimes serious enough to send you to the emergency room or your health care professional’s office. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America survey, the majority of Americans report living with moderate or high levels of stress. And on average, those who report their health as fair or poor have more stress (an average stress rating of 6.2 on a 10-point scale) compared with those who rate their health as excellent or very good (an average stress rating of 4.9 on a 10-point scale).

In today’s fast-paced world, women are experiencing more stress at every stage of their lives than ever before. Juggling job pressures, family schedules, money issues, career and educational advancement and child and elder-care concerns are only a few of the common stressors confronting women.

Stressors are the external events, including pressures in people’s lives, such as divorce, marriage, children, work and money. The experience of stress, however, is related to how you respond to these stressors. One person’s stressor can be another person’s motivator.

You can learn to manage how you respond to stressors through relaxation,meditation, some forms of psychotherapy and exercise, among other methods. However, you can also work to reduce the stressors in your life, such as learning to say no to some commitments, simplifying your life or leaving a bad job or relationship. Sometimes techniques that are originally designed to simply reduce your stress response and improve coping (for example, meditation and psychotherapy) can lead you to choose to reduce the stressors in your life because you begin to see more clearly what needs to change.

Working mothers, regardless of whether they are married or single, face higher stress levels—both in the workplace and at home. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the US agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illness and injury, provides these statistics regarding stress in the workplace:

  • 40 percent of workers reported their jobs were very or extremely stressful
  • 25 percent view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives
  • 75 percent of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago
  • 29 percent of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work
  • 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”

Stress has been linked with a variety of physical ailments from headache todepression to symptoms that mimic a heart attack. The balance between stressors and your ability to cope with them, however, can determine your mental health. When the stressors in your life match your coping abilities, you feel stimulated, engaged and appropriately challenged. Too many stressors in your life that overwhelm your attempts to cope can result in depression or anxiety.

Depression can feel like a pervasive sense of hopelessness, a feeling of wanting to give up, tearfulness or a sadness that does not seem to go away after a couple weeks. Anxiety can feel like a chronic state of feeling “keyed up” or “on edge.” Some people who are depressed or anxious have physical symptoms, such as changes in sleep or appetite (too much or too little).

Chronic depression and anxiety have been linked to other physical problems, such ascardiovascular disease, chronic painhypertension and diabetes. If you notice symptoms of depression or anxiety, it is important to get them treated. Your health care professional or mental health professional can help.

Regardless of your physical or mental symptoms, talk about the stress in your life with your health care professional. A thorough assessment by your health care team will help determine the cause of these symptoms. You may find that stress has triggered an illness, such as high blood pressure.

Stress and Your Body

Research indicates that women’s biological response to stress is to “tend and befriend”; this is, make sure the children are safe and then network with other women in stressful times. Men’s biological reaction to stress is to go into the “flight-or-fight” mode. Studies indicate that the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect, is released during stressful times in both men and women.

Estrogen may enhance oxytocin release, while testosterone may diminish it; this may be one reason that women seem to seek social support more often then men when under stress. However, women have also been socialized from an early age to look to their social group, particularly their female friends, for support when under stress, whereas men tend to engage in activities, such as exercise or even using substances, when under stress.

During stress, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, resulting in:

  • an increased need for oxygen
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • constricted blood vessels in the skin
  • tensed muscles
  • increased blood sugar levels
  • increased clotting ability of blood
  • spilling of stored fat from cells into the bloodstream
  • constriction of bowel and intestinal muscles

All this can strain your heart and artery linings. In fact, if you already have coronary heart disease, stress might lead to chest pain, called angina. Plus, the increased tendency for blood to clot during stress may lead to a clot in your coronary arteries, causing a heart attack.

Other physical dangers of stress include stomach problems as your bowel and intestinal muscles constrict and depression and anxiety. While stress doesn’t cause these mental illnesses, it can activate them in people who may already be prone to them.

Other physical dangers of stress include stomach problems, as your bowel and intestinal muscles constrict, as well as depression and anxiety. While stress doesn’t cause these mental illnesses, it can activate them in people who may already be prone to them.

Stress can also cause what has been termed “toxic weight gain.” Cortisol, a hormone released when you’re under stress, is an appetite trigger. That’s why so many women eat more—and less-than-healthy food—when under a lot of stress. Those extra calories are converted to fat deposits that gravitate to the waistline. These fat deposits, called visceral fat, are associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. Chronically high levels of cortisol may stimulate the fat cells inside the abdomen to fill with more fat. As you age, this 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.

Other symptoms of stress include muscular tension, headaches, gastrointestinalillnesses and sleeping more or less than normal.

Stress Triggers

It is important to distinguish between the acute stress response—when your heart beats faster and your breath comes faster as you get a rush of adrenalin—and the chronic stress response, in which you are continually under stress.

This chronic stress response is the one that causes the most problems as it literally wears out your body functions, leading to disease. That’s because our physical stress response was designed for emergency situations, such as fleeing an attacking animal, not for the everyday stressors we experience in modern society.

You may feel stressed in response to external or internal triggers, such as stressors in your life or your own way of relating to yourself. These include:

  • trauma or crises
  • small daily hassles
  • conflicts or unpleasant people
  • barriers that prevent you from reaching your goals
  • feeling little control over your life
  • excessive or impossible demands from others
  • noise
  • boring or lonely work
  • irrational ideas about how things should or must be; perceiving that life is not unfolding as you think it should
  • believing you are helpless or can’t handle a situation
  • drawing faulty conclusions like “they don’t like me” or “I’m inferior to them,” or having unreasonable fears of dire events such as “I’ll be mugged”
  • pushing yourself to excel and/or failing to achieve a desired goal
  • assigning fault for bad events, for example, placing blame on yourself or on others
  • realizing you may have been wrong but wanting to be right
  • overreacting to current stress as a result of intense stress years earlier, especially in childhood

Stress is an individualized experience. What may be stressful to you may not affect someone else. Your past experience, other stressors in your life and even heredity can affect what you experience as stressful.

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