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Today, more than ever before, women assume multiple roles – as career professionals, mothers, wives, parental caretakers, volunteers – and manage overlapping responsibilities; it’s no wonder that stress inevitably takes up residence.

It’s important to understand what triggers stress, how to manage it and when to seek professional help.

What is Stress?

Stress is your body's reaction to the constant demands of the world, and stressors are events or conditions in your surroundings which may trigger stress.

Stress is defined as a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Emotional stress usually occurs when situations are considered difficult or unmanageable. Physical stress refers to a physical reaction of the body to various triggers. More about stress

Is Depression Involved?

Many people feel depressed at times, but true clinical depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger or frustration interfere with everyday life for an extended period of time. More about depression

Facts About Stress

  • Stress is not necessarily bad. The real issue is how to manage it. Managed stress can make us productive and happy; mismanaged stress can affect health and well being.
  • Stress affects each person uniquely. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another.
  • 73% of Americans name money as the number one factor that affects their stress level.
  • 54% of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives.
  • Minor symptoms of stress – such as headaches or stomachaches – are early warnings that your life is getting out of hand and that you need to do a better job of managing stress.
  • You won’t find stress among leading causes of death in America, yet well-respected studies link stress to heart disease and stroke – two top killers. Stress may influence cancer and many other diseases.
  • Depression and anxiety afflict 18.8 million American adults and can be caused or exacerbated by stress.
  • Nearly twice as many American women as men are affected by depression.
  • 54% of workers are concerned about health problems caused by stress.
  • One in four workers occasionally takes a mental health day off from work to cope with stress.
  • 52% of workers are more stressed because of work than home.
  • Executives and managers tend to have the most stressful jobs, while self-employed workers are the least stressed.

Sources: American Psychological Association and National Institutes of Mental Health

Stress Symptoms

Showing signs of stress does not mean you are a weak individual who cannot cope. It means you are human like everyone else. While mild stress can actually be beneficial – it can spur you into action, motivate and energize you – the buildup of little things can result in persistent stress or adverse health.

Common symptoms of stress include:

  • Physical symptoms – headache, fatigue, skin problems, muscle tension, back pain, changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Mental symptoms – poor concentration, poor memory
    Emotional symptoms – mood swings, low self esteem, irritability, anxiety, depression
  • Social symptoms – isolation, resentment

Coping with Stress

First, be aware of your own warning signs – perhaps a sudden feeling of anxiety, extreme tiredness, feeling very emotional, catching every cough and cold, feeling run down. If you do not know your own warning signs, identify what triggers stress for you by keeping a journal for a week. Note the events and situations that cause a negative physical, mental or emotional response. Briefly describe each situation, what seemed to cause the stress and your reactions. Rate the intensity of your stress on a scale of 1 (not very intense) to 5 (very intense). Also make a list of weekly your demands. Note what occupies your time and energy – your job, the kids, an elderly parent. Then, on a similar scale, rate the intensity of stress that each demand causes. Finally, review what is really causing your stress. You might be surprised. Think about what you could change to lower your stress.

Tips for Coping:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Eat complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, which can help with those mood swings. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and keep sugar and salt to a minimum. Healthy eating strengthens the immune system to combat colds and the flu when you do get run down. Drink plenty of water, keep caffeine to a minimum and only drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Exercise. Choose a type of exercise you enjoy so you’ll maintain a regular, active schedule. Exercise at the same time each day and if possible, partner with a friend for motivation, accountability and even shared goals.
  • Create an outlet, relax. People with no outside interests, hobbies or a way to relax may be unable to handle stressful situations because they have no outlet for stress. Read, enjoy a hobby, exercise or get involved in some other activity that is relaxing and refreshing.
  • Attend a stress management seminar. It’s far better to know fully what to do prior to experiencing stress than during a stressful time.
  • Improve time management. Effective time management skills can help you identify goals, set priorities and minimize the stress in your life. Create realistic expectations and reward yourself when you meet a goal.
  • Overcome burnout. If you dread going to work or feel burned out or stressed over a period of weeks, your situation could affect your professional and personal life. Consider an alternate work schedule, a change in responsibilities or a job change.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Create a support system. Everyone needs someone with whom they can rely on and share, especially during a stressful time. Without a support system, a stressful situation seems more difficult. Avoid negative people who only reinforce bad feelings.
  • Take time off. Take a vacation or a long weekend. During the workday, take short breaks.
  • Set limits. When necessary, learn to say no in a friendly but firm manner.
  • Choose battles wisely. Don't rush to argue every time someone disagrees with you. Keep a cool head, and save your argument for things that really matter.
  • Seek help. If none of these things relieves your feelings of stress or burnout, ask a health care professional for advice.

When to Seek Help

Seek professional help if you:

  • Are unable to cope with demands of daily life
  • Notice a marked decline in your performance
  • Experience excessive anxiety
  • Have irrational fears
  • Have a sustained withdrawn mood or behavior
  • Experience significant change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Are preoccupied with food
  • Fear becoming obese with no relationship to actual body weight
  • Have persistent physical ailments and complaints
  • Misuse alcohol or drugs
  • Have suicidal thoughts or the urge to hurt others

How to Get Help

Make an appointment with your primary care physician to determine if your stress is due to an anxiety disorder, a medical condition or both. Your physician can help refer you to a mental health professional if appropriate. If you feel your situation is an emergency, call a crisis hotline, or go to your nearest emergency room.

Download Stress in Women [PDF]

More About Stress

There are two primary types of stress – acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute Stress
Acute stress is known as the fight-or-flight response, when your body has an immediate reaction to a threat, challenge or scare. The response can be intense, and thrilling in certain circumstances.

Acute stress can crop up in anyone's life, is short term, and highly treatable and manageable.

An exhilarating ski run
Rushing to meet a deadline

Chronic Stress
Chronic stress results from long-term exposure to acute stress. The response is more subtle, but the effects may be longer lasting and more problematic. Stressors leading to chronic stress may be the nagging, day-to-day life situations that seem unrelenting, or may stem from traumatic experiences that become internalized and forever painful and present.

The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people may give up hope and stop searching for solutions.

Poverty or a dysfunctional family life
Being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised job or career

More about Depression

Depression is usually categorized as mild, moderate or severe. Your doctor can determine the degree of depression and recommend treatment based on each individual.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping
  • A dramatic change in appetite, weight gain or weight loss
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of inappropriate guilt
  • Extreme difficulty concentrating
  • Agitation, restlessness and irritability
  • Inactivity and withdrawal from usual activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Low self esteem is common with depression. So are sudden bursts of anger and lack of pleasure from activities that normally make you happy.