Modern life surely has its beauties but it also has its ails, from a seemingly never ending pandemic to soaring house prices and the demands of a hectic work schedule. Indeed, stress affects a staggering portion of the population, impacting 33 percent of U.S. adults and contributing to 75 to 90 percent of all healthcare visits.
While no one is completely immune to stress—which, studies reveal, can be beneficial when it’s short-term and leads to galvanizing, positive results—women are more prone to it than men. What’s more, men and women experience stress differently—and are at a greater risk of certain conditions if it’s chronic
Why? Let’s dive in!
Stress and the gender gap
Financial woes, relationship complications, health concerns, career challenges—all are felt by both women and men. And yet, The American Psychological Association reports a gender gap in the realm of stress year after year, demonstrating that women unswervingly state higher stress levels.
On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Historically, men have been culturally conditioned to conceal their feelings and are less likely than women to seek professional help for mental health issues.
On the other hand, women—also historically—perform more unpaid domestic duties. True: Men report just as much stress as women on the work and home front, but the United Nations found that women do nearly three times as much domestic work than men.
Additionally, research shows that females are subjected more to what’s known as “emotional labor”—expressing feelings that aren’t genuinely there. In other words? Women persistently convey compassion, calm and buoyancy even when these emotions aren’t wholly felt. This can cause a sense of fragmentation and a loss of self—and that alone is stressful—as well as exhaustion and, in a cruel twist of nature, insomnia.
Stress responses of women vs. men
It isn’t just why women experience greater stress levels than men—it’s also how.
Studies published by the National Institutes of Health indicate that men are more predisposed to engage in either “fight or flight” when faced with stress. Meaning, they’ll bolt from the situation or prep themselves for a physical or verbal battle.
Women, however, are biologically inclined to what psychologist Shelly Taylor dubbed the “tend and befriend” model, wherein they’ll call a friend for comfort (or search for some other form of social support) while also protecting their offspring and loved ones.
Furthermore, men may experience higher cortisol levels than women when stressed. Meanwhile, women’s adrenals—small glands that govern the production of adrenaline, noradrenaline and steroid hormones, and affect everything from heart rate to blood pressure—get hit harder than their male counterparts.
As for the long-term consequences of enduring stress? Vulnerability to hypertension, infectious diseases, aggression and drug misuse is more rampant in men, while chronic pain, tension headaches, obesity, autoimmune diseases, depression and anxiety disorders are rifer in women. To pour salt on the wound? Women may also undergo irregular or missed periods.
Stress relief for women – 5 savvy tips
With all this being said, you’re likely keen on understanding how you can contend with stress—whether it constantly hums through you or arrives only on occasion. Here are five simple and shrewd ways:
1. Complete the stress cycle
Sisters Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski—who together penned Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle—argue that completing the stress cycle is the key to releasing tension.
Let’s dip back into history to explain the stress cycle. When our ancient ancestors outran a threat in the wild, they say that they then returned to the solace of their village, where another member of their tribe volleyed spears at the threat and exterminated it. Safety was found, and the stress they felt after confronting danger faded.
In our day and age, however, we’re perpetually under threat, albeit of an entirely different and far less urgent kind. From news flashes updating us on the new number of COVID cases to social media pressure and the various forms of constant communication—email, text, SnapChat, Facebook Messenger—we’re regularly, if not relentlessly, rattled.
Generally, instead of attending to our stress and concluding its cycle, we distract or numb ourselves. In response, stress remains active—so much so it can feel totally normal to walk around the world with some degree of panic, fear, or worry thrumming through us. Our alarm bell, to phrase it differently, continues to ring.
The Nagoski sisters suggest “completing the cycle” through six chief behaviors: movement, mindful breathing, social connection, humor, crying and creativity. And since we experience at least one stressor on the daily? It’s vital to implement at least one of these strategies into your Monday through Sunday routine.
2. Avoid—or dial back on—alcohol
“Hang-xiety” has officially entered the vernacular. While it’s a clever way to describe the dread that arrives after a night of drinking, its symptoms aren’t cute whatsoever, including a racing heart, feelings of guilt or shame, restlessness and difficulty focusing.
Think of it like this: Alcohol imitates the effects of serotonin (your happiness hormone) and GABA—a crucial neurotransmitter that can lead to euphoria and less inhibition, which is largely what appeals to people who imbibe in the first place. When your blood alcohol concentration starts to sink, however, you may experience its converse. This may result in anxiety—and it’s compounded by the fact that women can’t process alcohol as effectively as men, and can lead to excess estrogen in their bodies.
And while more research on the link between increased estrogen and anxiety needs to be conducted, some studies show that it can lead to higher stress levels overall. Never mind all the other symptoms women can experience from too much estrogen like heavy periods, breast cysts, weight gain and PMS.
Your solution? Throttling back on the amount of alcohol you consume, or eschewing it altogether. It is, after all, Dry January!
3. Supplement smartly
Several vitamins, minerals, and herbs can help you handle stress. Rhodiola rosea, for example, functions as an adaptogen—meaning, it works with your body to adapt to stress while also organically encouraging fatigue-fighting energy and mental clarity. Siberian ginseng—also known as eleuthero root—is also associated with bolstered energy, and may be a sager way to beat stress than caffeine, which often amplifies nervousness. Reishi, another adaptogen, naturally promotes a sense of serenity by soothing the central nervous system. Give these a whirl and you may be able to indeed keep calm and carry on.†
4. Scale back your social media use
Social media has its benefits, to be sure: It allows you to keep tabs on your friends and loved ones, it offers a sense of unity, and it’s saved many from utter isolation during the pandemic—and these are just a few of its pluses.
And yet, a mounting body of research exposes that social media may increase stress. (Just think of whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified that Facebook hid research on the mental health impacts, such as eating disorders, the site had on its users.)
This is due in part to the addiction feedback loop. “Likes,” comments, new followers—all can provide a hit of dopamine, another feel-good brain chemical. But when those responses lull or come to a standstill, anxiety may ensue.
To top it all off: Social media cultivates jealousy, resentment, and self-judgement, all of which can up your stress levels. Besides, bonding in person is significantly superior. It not only feels lovelier, but it also boosts the production of oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” that curbs anxiety by stimulating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system’s “chill out” response.
5. Nourish your adrenals
Given that women’s adrenals are struck especially hard by stress, nurturing them is central to mitigating nervous tension—and keeping it at bay.
The basic pillars of health—sound sleep, adequate exercise (see #1), proper nutrition, human connection and healthy coping strategies—are essential to preventing adrenal fatigue.
To be more specific, shoot for a sleep schedule in which you go to bed and wake up at more or less the same time each night and receive a minimum of seven hours daily. Find—or sustain—an exercise regime or practice that brings you pleasure. Shoot to fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods such as bone broth, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, avocado, seeds and yogurt or kombucha—probiotic foods that may quell the symptoms of IBS, which tends to accompany both stress in women and adrenal fatigue. Lean into that “tend and befriend” model—and take careful note of all the stress-busting recos here.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.