Stress: Its Negative Impact on Your Mental & Physical Health

Stessed Young Woman

We all have those situations  – like when your temperamental dishwasher turns the staircase into Niagra Falls just as you’re ready to head out for morning carpool, your mother’s 3 a.m. phone call about a tricky new thermostat she can’t figure out or your boss dropping yet another rush project on your desk as you’re trying to exit the office on time, among others.  These situations -- and countless others like them – all cause stress within our daily lives.

Add these daily stressors into the mix of lingering effects from the Covid-19 pandemic and you have a recipe that’s hazardous to your health: chronic stress.

Intermittent, short-term stress has its benefits. It helps power us through changes and challenges (think hitting the brakes to avoid a collision while driving or presenting a report during your company’s world-wide Zoom meeting.)

However, chronic stress, is bad for everyone’s health. In fact, chronic stress takes a huge toll on both women’s mental and physical health and well-being, even greater than that of men. What’s more, women are more likely to have mental health conditions that worsen with stress, such as depression or anxiety than their male counterparts.

Studies have proven men and women behave differently when faced with stress. Experts elaborate men manage stress via fight or flight response behaviors while women gravitate toward implementing tend and befriend response behaviors during stressful situations.

Challenges faced by today’s women associated with their ever-varying roles within the home, at work and within society; financial pressures and money worries; and the importance women themselves place on maintaining their relationships (partner, extended family, coworkers and friends) while multitasking many responsibilities all take stress levels to dizzying new heights for women of all ages.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) performed a study on gender and stress, which found several key differences between women and men relating to stress:

  • More women (28%) than men (20%) report their stress levels are on the rise.
  • Almost half of all women surveyed (49%) stated their stress increased during the past 5 years, compared to 39% of men.
  • Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms associated with stress than men.
  • Nearly one-third (33%) of married women reported having greater stress levels during the last month, compared with 22% of single women surveyed.
  • Significantly more married women (56%) report their stress had increased during the past 5 years when compared to 41% of single women.
  • Single women (63%) are also more likely than married women (51%) to say they feel they are doing enough to manage their stress.

Further studies also indicate chronic stress is often the root cause of many negative health effects, which can contribute to worsening of previously diagnosed health conditions or lead to additional serious health consequences that adversely affect your overall physical and mental health and well-being.

Additionally, stress can also be an underlying factor of even more potential health conditions for women, as it can have negative consequences on hormone production and balance as well as interfering with the optimal function of women’s reproductive systems. This in turn can negatively affect women’s health through problems associated with menstrual cycles, sexual function issues and their body’s pregnancy readiness, to name a few. Stress can also be an inherent factor in premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), female fertility and menopause health issues.

April is Stress Awareness Month and your Capital Women’s Care team wants to share important information about stress, its signs and symptoms, how it can impact women’s physical and mental health and well-being, what you can do to try to effectively manage stress and knowing when to seek professional help.

How Stress Impacts Health

Stress occurs when we face challenges or changes. During times of crises, our body releases hormones to help us cope and respond.

Intermittent short bursts of hormones don’t inflict harm. It’s when stress becomes constant that the damage occurs. During stress, the hypothalamus, a collection of nuclei connecting the brain and endocrine system, signals the pituitary gland to produce a hormone, which then signals the adrenal glands located above the kidneys to increase cortisol production.

Cortisol increases the level of energy fuel available by mobilizing glucose and fatty acids from the liver. Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day, typically increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing us with a daily energy cycle.

When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This results in increased steroid hormone production known as glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, known commonly as the “stress hormone.”

These steroid hormones are important for regulating the immune system. While this is valuable during stressful or threatening situations where injury might result in increased immune system activation, chronic stress can initiate communication errors between the brain and body’s various systems. These impaired communications have been linked to developing future numerous physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, depression and anxiety, and immune system disorders.

Women’s Reactions to Stress

Women are more likely than men to report experiencing symptoms of stress. Experts don’t fully know the reason, but it may be related to how men’s and women’s bodies process stress hormones.

Some ways chronic stress affects women include:

  • pain (including back pain)
  • acne and other skin problems (rashes or hives)
  • headaches
  • upset stomach (gas, bloating, diarrhea)
  • feelings of having no control
  • forgetfulness or brain fog
  • lack of energy and/or focus
  • overeating or not eating enough
  • becoming angry easily
  • difficulty sleeping
  • turning to drug and/or alcohol misuse
  • loss of interest in things previously enjoyed
  • and less interest in sex than usual.

Stress: Impact on Women’s Physical Health

Stress can wreak havoc on your physical health. It can set the stage for developing serious health consequences, including:

Heart problems. High stress levels can raise your blood pressure and heart rate. Over time, high blood pressure can cause serious health problems, like stroke and heart attacks. Younger women with a history of heart problems especially may be at risk of the negative effects of stress on the heart. Learn more about stress and heart disease.

The risk for heart disease associated with stress appears to differ for women, depending on whether women are premenopausal or postmenopausal.

Levels of estrogen in premenopausal women appears to help blood vessels respond better during stress, thereby helping their bodies to better handle stress and protecting them against heart disease.

Postmenopausal women lose this level of protection due to estrogen loss, therefore putting them at greater risk for the effects of stress on heart disease.

Obesity. The link between stress and weight gain is stronger for women than for men. Stress increases the amount of a hormone in your body called cortisol, which can lead to overeating and cause your body to store fat.

Gastrointestinal problems. Short-term stress can cause stomach issues such as diarrhea or vomiting. Chronic stress can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that is twice as common in women as in men. Stress can make IBS symptoms like gas and bloating worse.

Headaches and migraines. Muscles tense when you’re experiencing stress. Long-term tension can lead to headache, migraine and general body aches and pains. Tension-type headaches are common in women.

What’s more, chronic stress can negatively impact women’s reproductive systems. It can lead to:

  • problems becoming pregnant. Women with higher levels of stress are more likely to have problems getting pregnant than women with lower levels of stress. Also, not being able to get pregnant when you want to can be a source of stress.
  • menstrual cycle issues. Women who experience chronic stress may have more severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms or irregular periods. Some studies link past abuse or trauma to more severe PMS.
  • decreased sex drive. Women with chronic stress may take longer to get aroused and may have less sex drive than women with lower levels of stress. While not surprising, at least one study found that women with higher stress levels were more distracted during sex than other women.

Stress: Impact on Women’s Mental Health & Well-Being

Stress not only impacts your body and its physical health, but also your overall mental health and well-being. Studies indicate chronic stress especially is more likely to cause problems with moods and anxiety as well as depression in women.

Women’s mental health and well-being are more affected by stress than that of men. This can lead women to experiencing or worsening mental health consequences, including:

Additionally, chronic stress impacts women at various life situations unique to women, including monthly menstruation plus all stages relating to pregnancy and menopause.

Stress & Monthly Menstruation

Stress can also interfere with your monthly menstrual cycle, making it painful, heavier than what’s considered normal and irregular. Irregular, painful, or heavy periods may be signs of a serious health problem. Irregular periods also can make it harder to become pregnant.

Chronic stress can negatively impact monthly menstrual cycles, contributing to:

primary dysmenorrhea. This pain is associated with uterine contractions during monthly cycles. For most women, primary dysmenorrhea gets less painful as they become older. Some women are prone to severe menstrual pain, especially if they have high stress levels.

If pain continues after your monthly cycle ends, you may have secondary dysmenorrhea, which oftentimes indicates possibility of endometriosis, fibroids within the uterus or ovarian cysts, all of which require medical treatment.

irregular periods. Your periods are considered irregular if your menstrual cycle is shorter or longer than average, meaning the time from the first day of your last period up to the start of your next period is less than 24 days or more than 38 days.

Your periods can also be irregular if your cycle length varies by more than 20 days from month to month.

Amenorrhea is the absence of menstrual periods before menopause. You may have amenorrhea if you haven’t had a period for 3 consecutive months or had your first period by age 15. Chronic stress can affect the part of your brain that controls reproduction. As a result, ovulation and your period can stop. Managing stress can help restore normal menstrual cycles.

menstrual migraines. About 5 in 10 women get a migraine that coincides with their periods. Many factors can trigger migraine, including stress. Hormones which control the menstrual cycle may affect headache-related chemicals in the brain.

premenstrual syndrome (PMS.) PMS is a combination of symptoms many women get about a week or two before their period. Over 90% of women say they get some premenstrual symptoms, including bloating, having headaches and moodiness. For some, these symptoms may be so severe they miss work or school, but others aren’t bothered by milder symptoms. On average, women in their 30s are most likely to have PMS.

Stress & Pregnancy

It’s normal to feel stress during pregnancy as your body and hormones adjust and change; plus, you may also worry about your baby and the resulting life adjustments. However, chronic stress throughout pregnancy can harm you and your baby’s health.

Stress during pregnancy can make normal pregnancy discomforts even worse. It can also lead to more serious problems, including:

  • depression. Depression during pregnancy or after birth can affect your baby’s development. Learn more about depression during and after pregnancy.
  • eating issues. Women who are underweight or who gain too much weight during pregnancy are at risk for complications, including premature delivery (delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and gestational diabetes. Get a personalized recommendation on how much weight to gain during pregnancy.
  • high blood pressure. High blood pressure during pregnancy puts you at risk for developing preeclampsia, premature delivery and having a low-birth-weight infant (baby weighs less than 5½ pounds).

Be certain to discuss with  your doctor your stress levels and try these tips to help you manage your stress. Also, review important information on how stress affects breastfeeding.

Stress & Menopause

Stress can exacerbate the onslaught of mood changes associated with menopause and the time prior to menopause onset, which occur due to hormonal changes within your body and external environmental changes you experience in everyday life (such as empty nest syndrome, death of family members or friends, a divorce or caring for aging parents are some examples.)

If you experience mood changes with your monthly periods or depression after giving birth, you may be more likely to have mood changes associated with menopause.

Even if you never experience mood changes during your monthly periods or after giving birth, you may still experience mood changes during menopause.

Effective Stress Management

Managing stress levels within your daily life boils down to:

  • understanding and identifying your stress triggers
  • initiating effective stress management techniques
  • and taking care of your physical and mental health and well-being.

Effective stress management starts with identifying your sources of stress and developing strategies to manage them. You can do this by creating a journal or making a list of situations, concerns or challenges that trigger your stress response. Take a moment to jot down some of the top issues you're facing right now. You'll notice some of your stressors seem to originate from within (internal stress factors) while others are events that happen to you (external stress factors.)

Some internal stressors may include beliefs, attitudes, personal expectations and thoughts, the perceived thoughts and expectations of others and your sense of being in control of your personal life situations.

External factors which may influence stress levels include:

  • both positive and negative major life changes -- such as a desired job promotion, marriage, planned pregnancy or relocating and moving into a new home or the death of a family member or divorce.
  • environment -- input from the world around us can be a source of stress. Consider how you react to sudden noises, such as a barking dog, or to a bright sunlit or very dark room.
  • unpredictable events –- the Covid-19 pandemic and other worldwide events can trigger stress. On a personal level, you may have uninvited house guests, a rent hike or job loss or cut in salary that happen without advance notice.
  • workplace -- common work stressors include an impossible workload, endless emails, urgent project due dates and a demanding boss.
  • social -- meeting new people can be stressful. Family relationships often spawn stress as well.

Once you identify and understand your stress triggers, you can devise and initiate personalized stress management strategies to help get you through difficult situations and moments.

Strategies you can use to manage external stressors include lifestyle factors such as eating a healthy diet, being physically active and getting enough sleep — all of which help boost resiliency. Prioritizing self-care is also valuable because it helps you recharge, refresh and readies your focus toward additional challenges in daily life.

Other beneficial steps include asking for help from others, using humor, learning to be assertive and practicing problem-solving and time management. Consider how you use your time and energy by focusing on activities that are important to you, paring down the number of activities you're involved in and saying no (without guilt) to new commitments.

Some relaxation techniques include:

  • meditation -- research has shown that meditation can be helpful in lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and even improving cognitive performance.
  • listening to music -- slow tempos can induce a calm state of mind, as well as slow down breathing and heart rate, lower blood pressure and relax tense muscles.
  • creating a relaxation area –- put together a special spot or corner that’s distraction and electronics free to create a sense of peaceful calm. If you have an enjoyable hobby like scrapbooking or crafting, set the area up so you can immerse yourself in your craft. Have a cozy chair and throw blanket for snuggling up with a new book to melt stress away.
  • getting a massage –- free yourself from tension and relax, especially with lavender and chamomile essential oils which have noted soothing properties. If you can’t get to your favorite spa, indulge at home with a small aromatherapy diffuser with essential oils and massage tools.
  • enjoying a hot bath -- heat relaxes tense muscles as well as soothes the mind. Stock up on your favorite bath salts and soaps, get a bath pillow and decorate the room with candles. You can even create an in-home spa, by incorporating spa treatments such as a facial, manicure and pedicure.

And, perhaps most importantly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle greatly helps to reduce and manage stress. Be certain you:

get enough sleep. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night. Lack of sleep is proven to be linked to depression.

exercise regularly. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Exercise is proven to help with depression. Be active and initiate proven stress-reducing activities like yoga, tai chi or taking a walk around your neighborhood. These tips on how to get active can help you start a regular exercise plan.

limit alcohol intake. Limit how much alcohol you drink, if any. A moderate amount of alcohol for women is 1 drink a day, and no more than 7 drinks a week. More than 4 drinks at one sitting is considered binge drinking.

set limits and take control. Be firm about how much you take on. Look for positive ways to unwind and ease daily stress. Try relaxation or meditation techniques, reading a book, taking a nightly warm bath, spending some quiet time outdoors or other healthy ways to unwind.

manage and maintain a healthy weight. Eat a healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol plus sugar and limit processed foods when possible.

Enjoy a variety of whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and fiber and drink plenty of water daily. Eat foods with B vitamins, like bananas, fish, avocados, chicken, and dark green, leafy vegetables. Studies show B vitamins can help relieve stress by regulating nerves and brain cells.

Maintain portion control during mealtimes and limit snacks.

Trade your coffee, which can exacerbate stress symptoms, for soothing green tea, which contains theanine, an amino acid that gives green tea its flavor and promotes relaxation.

Focus on lean proteins like fish and chicken and limit red meat intake and follow the USDA Food Pyramid Guidelines.

Take time to be mindful during dinner by slowing down and engaging your partner and other family members in conversation about the day’s activities.

Seeking Additional Help

If you find yourself unable to reduce your stress, prevent future stressful episodes despite your best efforts, or notice your reaction to stress worsens, don’t hesitate to reach out and get professional help.

Contact your practitioner for a referral to a mental health specialist who can help you overcome and conquer stress in your daily life. Effective stress management is an important component to optimizing your physical and mental health as well as your well-being.

Your local Capital Women’s Care team is here for you should you have any questions or concerns about your stress levels and how they are affecting your health and daily life. Our compassionate family of knowledgeable professionals are here to offer you focused, in-depth recommendations on incorporating effective, individualized stress management strategies within your personal healthcare plan so you can enjoy optimal physical and mental health and well-being throughout your lifetime.

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