Gender and stress


It's now official: women feel stress more than men do. A study of 30,000 people in 30 countries has found that at comparable life stages and in similar circumstances, women are more likely than their male counterparts o report feeling stress. Whether single, married, divorced, or widowed, whether a parent or childless, women are more stressed than men in the same situation.

To conduct the study, pollsters with Roper Starch Worldwide asked teenagers and adults when -- and how intensely -- they felt stress. The results, released in August, indicate that issues of family, work, and money are the most common sources of stress for both genders and that working women with children had the highest stress levels.

A smaller study conducted at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., also indicates that women are under more stress than men and identifies working mothers as the most highly stressed group. In that poll, which involved 193 women and an equal number of men, the most common source of stress was lack of time. Issues of self-esteem, social life, family relationships, and physical appearance ranked higher on the list of stressors for women than for men. Women frequently stated that they felt pressured to live up to expectations -- either society's or their own. When they failed, they felt guilty; when they succeeded, they felt burned out.

A long-term study of Volvo employees in Sweden may shed some light on why working women register such high stress levels. Swedish researchers measured the workers' catecholamines -- hormones secreted by the adrenal glands in response to a challenging or threatening situation that drive up heart rate and blood pressure. They determined that the women's catecholamines and blood pressure tend to remain elevated long after the end of the workday, while the men's started to decline as soon as they left work.

Chronic stress has been demonstrated to dampen immune function and to play a role in the development of heart disease. Although most of the biological and clinical studies of the effects of stress have been conducted in men, it's probably safe to assume that women, too, incur health risks when they are under constant pressure.

Although there is little solid evidence that stress-reduction prevents disease in women, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have acknowledged stress as one of the psychosocial factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease. A few techniques have been shown to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones. These include the following:

Exercise. As we have been taught, the release of catecholamines prepares the body for flight or fight -- in other words, for exercise, one of the most effective ways to dissipate stress. It also helps to control weight and to prevent depression and degenerative diseases. Most types of exercise will work, but aerobics, yoga and tai chi are especially good stress reducers.
Expression. Confronting stressful situations is the most direct --and often the most successful -- way of handling them. Doing so runs the gamut from using negotiation skills on the job, to holding family problem-solving sessions, to participating in support groups, to keeping a journal describing the circumstance and one's response to it.
Relaxation. There is increasing evidence that techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and massage help to reduce stress.
Self exploration. Stress isn't always due to the pressures of the moment; it may be the result of past trauma or other unresolved situations. Psychotherapy and/or psychoanalysis can address such issues and enable one to better deal with them.

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