Take charge of your health. Sign up for HealthyWomen newsletters:
Healthy Living

Why We're Stressed

By Sheryl Kraft

Share on:

Most days, I'm at home working in my office. It's quiet—just me, my computer, my hopeless piles of paper and random noises from the outside world. The television and radio in my office rarely get turned on because I adore the quiet.

And I feel pretty calm. Of course, there are those times when the phone rings a bit too much, e-mails flood my inbox, my old dog's arthritis/stomach/nerves drive me to distraction or my deadlines merge into a frenzied rush.

But then I step foot out into the "real" world: reckless and dangerous drivers, rude people, rushed or inattentive salespeople. Life sometimes flies by and smacks me in a blurred cacophony.

And I wonder: is it like this for everyone? Or is it me showing my, ahem, age? I've got a folder overflowing with articles on the topic of women and stress, with the vast majority of the articles highlighting how baby boomers are less healthy than their parents, both mentally and, in turn, physically (now that topic is for another post).

Hidden in these papers is one with a study from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index saying that women between the ages of 45 to 64 have the lowest well-being of all age groups, male or female.

So, is it an age and gender thing, then? Or, as I wrote in a previous post, is it attributable to hormonal upheavals?

Well, yes. And no. I think being in this age range—and being a woman—naturally and inevitably set us up for many stressors.

  • By this time, if we still have our parents, they're elderly—and living longer than previous generations. And elderly parents (unless they're really fortunate) equal health problems, which translates to us helping out, acting as their advocates, moving them into our homes or assisted living facilities, etc.
  • Like it or not, women are the traditional caretakers. And tradition sometimes trumps our best efforts to equalize things. That means we shoulder the brunt of the person-to-person responsibilities, not only helping to care for our parents, but for our own family and, if there's time left over, ourselves. But taking time for ourselves often leads to guilt that we're taking time away from our families—so we don't do it often enough. Here's a statistic from AARP: 20 percent of people age 45 to 64 have caregiving or financial responsibilities for a parent, older family member or adult child.
  • Our children may be grown by now, but chances are good that our once-empty nest has filled back up. If not, we might be helping out our children financially. When I think about how much easier it was to get by financially when I was in my 20s than it is for 20-somethings today, I believe it when I hear, "Things were different back then, Mom." (It's true I was able to scrape by on only $10—maybe $15—a week on food since I existed on canned soup and omelets. And food was cheaper then.)
  • We're not getting enough sleep because either we're too busy, too overwhelmed or too stressed to sleep. And sleep deprivation, along with threatening your health, leads to an increased inability to cope with everyday life.
  • As women, we may be hardwired to be less able to cope with stress. It could be just a matter of brain chemistry. According to the National Institute of Mental Health: “A study in rats has revealed striking gender differences in the brain's stress response that could shed light on women's proneness to mood and anxiety disorders. Female rat brain cells were more sensitive to a key stress hormone than males', which could adapt to the hormone in a way female cells couldn't.” Stress activates something called the corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) in your brain (which lets it know that something is wrong), and men's brains need a lot more CRF than ours do before they become highly agitated. (Others theorize differently, claiming that due to the female hormone oxytocin, women seek out other women to talk to when they need help. Personally, I prefer this way of thinking.)

What do you think? Is stress one of the prices we must pay—one of the inevitable changes that come with aging? More suggested reading:

 

Comments

I think for me one of life's biggest stresses is money - working hard to make it, worrying about how I spend it, and trying to save enough of it for retirement.

I hope not. When I was younger I thought life became more manageable (not less stressful per se) as you age, but now that I'm getting older I know that's just not the case. I do think you're on to something with women serving as dual caregivers--sometimes for their own children who move back in, their parents, sometimes even their children's children.

Kristen, I guess the old saying "...if you live long enough..." applies here, huh? But that also (hopefully) means we are better able to cope and have learned some valuable life lessons along the way.

Kristen, I guess the old saying "...if you live long enough..." applies here, huh? But that also (hopefully) means we are better able to cope and have learned some valuable life lessons along the way.

Sheryl,
I don't think strees is a price we must pay. I've had my times with it, certainly, and made some less than stellar choices in how to handle it at times. it helps me to remember that there are always choices in how I think and feel about a situation -- whatever that situation may be.

Thanks for the reminder, Kerry, that there IS always a choice in how we personally respond to stress.

Thanks for the reminder, Kerry, that there IS always a choice in how we personally respond to stress.

I agree with Kerry! I've worked to separate myself from a lot of "common" stressors and just don't let it gobble me up. That's not to say that certain situations don't arise to cause stress, but I definitely don't feel as though I'm living my life under constant stress.

Delightful. Periods, child birth, menopause, AND less physiologically less able to cope with stress.

Sorry, Melanie. Sounds like we are all in need of some GOOD news...

Sometimes I realized how much I've sheltered myself when I'm driving and there are a few cars on the road and I start to feel stressed just because there are other cars there. I hardly have to drive because I work at home. I hardly have to deal with noise for the same reason. I also find the transition from working at home to momming at night to be stressful because one is a quiet activity and the other is a noisy one.

It is really easy to get used to the quiet, don't you think?

More and more, I see and believe a direct correlation with lack of enough good sleep and stress. More than anything else, in a way, this is something that I suppose we can have a bit more of a hand in fostering (a good night's sleep, that is)...by learning what our bodies need and giving it to them.

Agreed, Merr ...speaking of which, I think I am going to get into bed early tonight!

Agreed - ever since I stopped commuting (and cutting down on sleep as a result of the long commute), I've found greater equilibrium.

I think stress is an unavoidable thing in life, no matter our age or our gender. In our 20s, we were stressing about new marriages, new homes, building our careers and whether or not to have a family. In our 30s, it was much of the same, only on a "bigger" scale: bigger homes, bigger families (and issues), more responsibility at work because we built careers. And then you have the issues that start to come with aging in the 40s, kids and college, mid life issues with menopause, elderly parent issues. It's a matter of how we deal with these things that sets us on a path if we'll become elderly.
Interesting about what you say that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents. I've read the opposite, that because they were so active and man remain so, they are more physically fit than their parents. No?

Yes, NoPot, agreed. Money is one of the biggest stressors for so many, especially now.

Caregiver, houskeeper, groundskeeper. Grami, nanny, wife, mother, and all that covers. My own Mother passed and left a mess for my brother and I. Im Friend to a few as time allows.
Supposed to contribute financially now as well as husband is not prepared for retirement and doesnt want to do much to change that but whine and worry about "whats to become of me"? . Cant say Im liking him much these days. Everything he does and the way he does it seems to make me crazy.
Yeah, great time for menopause to show up in addition to severe fibromyalgia, arthritis, back issues. Anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation have become my norm for about 3 years years now. I want to be a tolerant, commpassionate, NICE person again who knows what its like to feel rested and refreshed in the mornings, at least a couple times a week... is there ANY hope for me?

R'anna,

Sorry you are dealing with all these things. I hope you will take care of yourself during this difficult time and perhaps carve out some "me" time to eat right, exercise, and get enough rest. Good luck!

Not enough sleep is a huge factor in the stress equation. So is the feeling of not enough money. Just saying.

I think multi-tasking is a big stress inducer on a daily basis. Having even a bit of time to decompress each day - whether it's taking a yoga class or meditating or doing tai chi at home - could be beneficial.

@Ruth @jeanine There is such an overload that it is sometimes so hard NOT to multitask. Yoga=Relaxation=Less Stress. Duly noted.

I do think yoga helps me with stress more than anything else -- and helps me sleep better.

Some things are definitely more stressful in this era. More computers, more technology, more stuff to keep track of... but then I think back to times like the Great Depression, and those people were super stressed in a different way. I guess every generation has their own version of stress to deal with. Kind of makes you wonder what's ahead (but I won't think about that, because it's too stressful!).

I agree, Jane. Every generation has their own version - and definition - of stress. What has become perhaps easier for us to deal with through technology and more modern conveniences has also been a culprit in overload and a contributor to our present stress, I fear.

I'm finding that I stress out more now that I'm older, knowing what I know about the environment, worrying about toxic chemicals and my grandkids' future, etc. People do not seem to understand the implications and the reproductive chaos pesticides and herbicides are creating. GMOs. They freak me out. Was very upset recently that President Obama totally ignored the concerns of the Tar Sands Action protesters and okayed the pipeline. Why did I not worry about these things when I was younger? Lord knows. I feel as if the world is out of control now. People have no jobs. Corporations rule. The recession does not end. Good sense doesn't seem to matter any more. No wonder I feel stressed.

That's a lot to feel stressed about - and a lot of things that are health-related and will affect our future and the future of our children and grandchildren as well. I think when we're younger, we feel invincible and have full trust in the world, but as we get older we are much more realistic and see things a lot more clearly.

Stress isn't inherently bad, but when it results in lack of sleep or poor diet or not exercising, that's certainly not healthy!

Absolutely. And so many times our sleep and our eating habits are thrown out of whack by too much stress.

Like it or not life presents different stress situations. It's how we choose to handle those situations that keeps us healthy. It's all about choices.....and learning to let go of things that we have no control over. Not saying it's easy .....just part of life. :)

I couldn't agree with you more, Deb. We do have choices; it's sometimes hard to remember that when we mired in distress. But an important thing to remember for sure, so you don't feel totally out of control.

It is so true about choices. I tease my friends and tell them
I was born stressed. I try to pray at least once everyday: God grant me the Serenty to accept the things I can not change, Change the things I can and The WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks for the reminder, Janeda. So true about changing the things you can but knowing the difference between those and the things you cannot change. It's a way to stay balanced, isn't it?

Add new comment