Stress adversely affects women (and especially women in high-pressure jobs), who report higher overall stress levels than their male counterparts. The latest research on the topic published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology focuses on women with heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for one in four fatalities a year — and says that stress hits women harder.
The researchers analyzed 678 adults with an average age of 63, all of whom had heart disease. While they each gave a speech, the researchers measured their blood pressures and heart rates, they took imaging pictures of their hearts and they measured the constriction of arteries supplying blood in their fingers. And the results show that, instead of dilating and increasing blood flow to the heart during stress, women’s tiny blood vessels are constricted, leading to areas of reduced blood flow. Because women experience reduced blood supplies to their hearts when they’re under pressure, their hearts tend to forcibly pump out blood, which increases the risk of a cardiovascular-related event or premature death.
Previous research has already shown us that a reduction in blood supply to the heart (ischemia) during mental stress doubles the risk of heart attack of death from heart disease. So it’s important for women with heart disease to understand that their vulnerability. But stress affects women with or without heart disease. A recent study published in the journal PLoS One found that women who rate their jobs as “highly demanding and stressful” were 38 percent more likely to have a heart problem than women who reported low job strain.
Some research suggests that differences in men and women’s brains and bodies may make women more physically and emotionally sensitive to certain types of stress, and may be why women tend to internalize stress to a greater degree and are, therefore, more likely to develop depression than men.
According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, acute and chronic stress can take a greater toll on women’s well-being and consequentially affect their work performances and, ultimately, their lives. It can affect women by inducing mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, or by causing obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart beats, problems with the menstrual cycle and dermatological issues.
For example, stress can cause women to reach for comfort foods or totally wipe out their appetites, as exhibited in a study published in November 2017 in the journal Frontiers in System Neuroscience. This can, of course, lead to either weight gain or weight loss. Plus, research has linked higher levels of cortisol, “the stress hormone,” to a lower waist-to-hip ratio in women (meaning more weight in the belly area), a decreased metabolism and increased appetite and sugar cravings.
Stress of any level of severity can also fundamentally alter the body’s hormone balance, which can result in missed, late or irregular periods. Women in high-stress jobs are at a 50 percent higher risk for short cycle length (less than 24 days) than women who aren’t under loads of pressure in their positions.
“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 hair or having menstrual irregularities, and everything points to stress as a factor,” Lori Heim, MD, former president and chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a physician at Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg, North Carolina told Everyday Health.
Raised levels of cortisol can cause excess oil production that contributes to acne breakouts, according to a 2003 study, too. In fact, raised levels of cortisol can cause a whole array of issues from insomnia to hair loss to infertility.
Fortunately, studies also show that women do indeed handle stress better than men. While there are substantial discrepancies in how stress impacts women’s health as compared to men’s, men and women also respond to stress (“fight or flight” vs. “tend and befriend”) differently. A State University of New York at Buffalo study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that the hormone estrogen has a protective effect on the brain that causes women to respond better to repeated stress exposure than men.
But in order to respond well, reduce stress and avoid the aforementioned health complications, it’s first critical to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress. These include “not eating or eating too much, feeling like you have no control, needing to have too much control, forgetfulness, headaches, lack of energy, lack of focus, trouble getting things done, poor self-esteem, short temper, trouble sleeping, upset stomach, back pain and general aches and pains,” according to Women’s Health.
A, 2011 survey of 3,000 people found that 25 percent of happiness hinges on how well we handle stress, and planning — or anticipating stressful events and having the tools to fight it readily available — is the best way to reduce stress. These tools might be a to-do list app to keep organized, a grocery list that ensures you’ll eat healthy meals or a gym membership to keep you physically active. In fact, Women’s Health suggests that getting organized and setting limits can help reduce stress, as well as taking care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating well and keeping physically active.
The resource also adds that women can start to reduce stress by relaxing: “If you're feeling stressed, taking a few deep breaths makes you breathe slower and helps your muscles relax. Stretching can also help relax your muscles and make you feel less tense… [And] having someone massage the muscles in the back of your neck and upper back can help you feel less tense.”
Another study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, also found that rediscovering favorite hobbies that require focus (i.e. crafting, writing, yoga, home repairs), is linked to stress reduction.
Otherwise, you might want to consider talking it out with friends or family and, if you don’t find yourself getting any better, talking it out with a doctor who might suggest you seek counseling or prescribe medicines such as antidepressants or sleeping aids.
However you choose to combat your stress, remember that it’s critical to your physical and mental health and will hurt your job performance and life if you don’t get it under control.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.