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Nearly One-Quarter of Women Under ‘Extreme’ Stress, Survey Finds
Stress is the general term for a natural reaction that occurs in the body and brain during moments of physical danger and/or emotional upset. From a biological perspective, this reaction is designed to help improve the overall chances of human survival; unfortunately, constant activation of the stress response in an overstimulating 21st century environment can have a significantly negative impact on a person’s health and sense of well-being. Current evidence indicates that stress affects men and women in substantially different ways. Some of these differences are perceived subjectively by men and women themselves, while others emerge from an objective, third-party perspective.
The stress reaction, also popularly known as the “fight-or-flight” response, occurs when the normal functioning of two different body systems—the nervous system and the endocrine or hormone system—changes under the influence of real or perceived threats to one’s life, safety or security. The chain reaction triggered by the alteration of these systems produces physical responses such as a faster breathing rate, a faster heart rate, a faster flow of blood to the body’s large muscles, and an increased focus on the input coming into the brain from the five senses. Together, these responses prepare the body to react quickly and either provide a defense against an incoming threat or enable a rapid retreat from that threat.
For good or ill, the body and brain respond in largely similar ways to both major, life-threatening situations and the relatively minor stresses that occur during everyday life. As a rule, the levels of response to these events differ in degree, but not in kind. In real-world terms, this means that we’re all susceptible to regularly occurring sources of stress that can alter our function in a number of ways. Emotional indicators of significant stress exposure include restlessness, irritability, mood swings, a “down” or depressed state of mind, and loss of a sense of control. Thought-related indicators of stress exposure include a poor ability to focus or pay attention, memory lapses and a declining ability to make appropriate decisions. Behavior-related stress symptoms include sleep disruptions, isolation from other people, inappropriate use of alcohol and/or drugs or medications, appetite disruptions, nicotine use, and development of an array of nervous “tics.”
Each year, the American Psychological Association releases a report called Stress in America, which examines current trends in stress on a number of different levels. The gender-related effects of stress are prominently featured in every new edition of this report. According to the most recent figures available (found in Stress in America 2012), both men and women in the U.S. feel that their daily levels of stress are high enough to negatively affect their health and well-being. However, American women consistently report higher levels of harmful stress than their male counterparts.
Over a period of one year and a longer period of five years, more women than men report significant increases in their levels of daily stress. In fact, about 23 percent of U.S. women categorize their levels of stress as “extreme,” while only about 16 percent of men place their stress levels in this category. Both men and women list their top sources of stress as worries about finances, the workplace, and the overall state of the country’s economy. However, more men (39 percent) than women (34 percent) consider themselves to be sufficiently capable of coping with the effects of everyday stress.
Generally speaking, more women than men report suffering from the physical, emotional and behavioral effects of stress. This holds true for a range of common symptoms, including headaches, feelings of sadness or depression, feelings of anxiousness or nervousness, altered sleeping patterns, unusual tiredness, loss of personal motivation or interest in pleasurable activities, and a sense of being overwhelmed by one’s problems. Some of the common methods used to relieve stress also differ between the genders. For instance, while both men and women rely more or less equally on music enjoyment and exercise participation, women have a substantially greater tendency to participate in such stress-relieving activities as reading, interacting within a social circle, eating and shopping.
Both men and women report a roughly equal ability to make lifestyle changes that support stress reduction. They also tend to point to the same reasons—namely, insufficient time and poor self-discipline—for the failure to make changes. However, women have a much greater tendency than men to rely on professional help (in the form of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist) to make lifestyle alterations or devise other strategies to support improved stress management.