While death is an extreme result of stress-related illness, women are particularly susceptible to developing disease in response to stress--from depression and anxiety disorders to abdominal fat and colds.
Does this scenario sound familiar? You wake up by 6 a.m., hit the ground running, reading as you text message, eating as you drive, and phoning as you e-mail. You get to your salon to find out you’ve been overbooked, employees have called in sick, or the plumbing in the building’s gone out. You ask Calgon to take you away, but your day is just getting started and there’s nothing you can do. You’re stressed out.
About a decade ago, state-of-the-art scans confirmed what many of us have always suspected: Women’s brains have more connections between the two cerebral hemispheres than men’s, which may explain why women can multitask from dawn to dusk while men cannot seem to chew peanuts and watch television simultaneously.
In this new no-leisure age, we take a perverse pride in being the busiest woman on the block. Whether inside the salon, driving the children’s carpool, or working the charity circuit, our sense of self-worth has somehow become wrapped up in our impossibly rigorous schedules.
Stress used to be associated with desperate situations: life-threatening disease, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Today, the pace of life has become so intense, the opportunities for rest are so limited, that a whole heap of everyday hassles have been redefined as stressful: 40 e-mails arrive on your screen simultaneously; the dry cleaner lost your favorite shirt; your laptop crashes; your party caterer cancels on short notice.
“The body has its own natural cycle of ups and downs in its ability to handle day-to-day challenges,” explains Dr. Natacha Nelson, a Redondo Beach, Calif.-based chiropractor. “It’s when your body accumulates stress that it gets closer to the threshold of disease.”
While you may be thinking that these little stressors couldn’t possibly give you serious health problems, think again. “If your body is under constant strain, it doesn’t have a chance to come down, which leads to health problems from colds to high blood pressure,” says Dr. Nelson.
A 2001 survey done by The Marlin Company, which publishes the annual Attitudes in the American Workplace, revealed that more than one-third of us consider our jobs harmful to our physical or emotional well-being. Not only are Americans claiming an average of 47 working hours a week (according to a 2002 Harris Poll),we are also taking less vacation: an estimated 10.2 days a year, compared to Japan’s 17.5 days, Britain’s 25, and France’s 35-42.
With this scenario, it’s no wonder that most of us look at stress as an unalterable element of daily life. While these are undoubtedly nerve-jangling times for everyone, women’s lives in particular are so crammed full of commitments that many of us are running on empty. And, as if all that weren’t enough, we have the additional stress of worrying about what all this accelerated living is doing to us.
Why Women Are So Vulnerable
While it is true that men may face more immediate life-threatening occupational hazards, women appear to be more vulnerable to stress-induced illnesses, for a variety of reasons. First, we are socialized to be caretakers, so we almost automatically take on responsibilities that men might not even consider. This alone adds to the stress loads we carry. Second, women as a whole are less likely to be in positions of power and are not as able to control what’s going on in their environment as most men. If you can’t say no, the stress you feel can be doubly disastrous because you don’t see any escape. The less power you have over the circumstances of your everyday existence, the heavier the stress load.
It may be obvious that what complicates a woman’s stress is work. Men who are stretched thin at their work places often go home to relax. Women, on the other hand, go home and keep on working. In spite of the increasing number of women with careers and jobs, traditional roles in their homes still take precedence for many women. They can expect to be in charge of everything from child care to laundry. Given this situation, their minds as well as their bodies work overtime. When they become angry about too much to do in too little time with too little help, the anger only adds to their overstressed physical condition.
“It’s not necessarily that women don’t cope as well. It’s just that they have so much more to cope with,” says Dr. Nelson. “Their capacity for tolerating stress may even be greater than men’s,” she observes, “It’s just that they’re dealing with so many more things that they become worn out more visibly and sooner.”
Even women who sense their own need to slow down are programmed toward over commitment because they feel guilty about not being able to be everything to everyone in their lives. Time spent alone or nurturing their own mental and physical well-being might be construed as selfish, so they push even harder on all fronts — home, work, and social. Sociologists speculate that many women today may be disadvantaged because they have incorporated a male standard for achievement in the work world with an old-fashioned female standard for perfection at home.