By: Dr. Amy Ricke, Psychiatrist – Stress on Womens Health in Today’s Society
This week is National Women’s Health Week, part of May’s Mental Health Month. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this week serves as a reminder to women to take care of themselves and to make their health a priority. In fact, stress on womens health can play a major role in your overall wellbeing.
Unfortunately, stress has become a part of daily life for many, especially women. Women often juggle multiple roles and sometimes respond to an overwhelming amount of demands, with competing responsibilities as wife, mother, caregiver, employee, etc. Without making self-care a priority, women’s health, both mental and physical, can suffer.
To be fair, not all stress is detrimental. Some amount of acute stress can be beneficial in that it motivates us to seek safety during an acute threat, as well as towards change and increased productivity in the short-term. Chronic stress, however, can be harmful to both the mind and the body. Stress causes the body to go into “fight or flight’ mode, during which the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, resulting in adrenaline surges that cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, sustained high levels of cortisol take a toll on health, in large part by increasing inflammation throughout the body. Women, in particular, appear to be most susceptible to the effects of chronic stress.
What are the effects of chronic stress on the body?
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Poor diet, with preferences for sugar, refined carbohydrates, and caffeine
- GI disorders including irritable bowel syndrome, reflux (GERD), and ulcers.
- Suppression of immune system, resulting in more colds, flu, and other infections
- Chronic pain, including back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and headaches
- Increased systemic inflammation, leading to autoimmune diseases
- Slowed metabolism and increased risk for diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol
- High blood pressure
What are the effects of chronic stress on mental health?
Sustained levels of stress can be associated with feelings of anxiety, depression, tension, irritability, severe fatigue, memory and concentration issues, and mood swings, ultimately resulting in clinical depression or an anxiety disorder. Insomnia is another unfortunate side effect of high levels of stress. Women may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Insomnia, in turn, has further adverse effects on the body and mind, worsening mood, anxiety, focus, and memory.
What are the effects of chronic stress on hormone balance?
Chronic stress can take a toll on your reproductive hormone balance, leading to late, missed or irregular menstrual periods. Stress can also impact your libido, as well as affect your ability to become pregnant. Under conditions of stress, the body is less likely to ovulate, which can lead to infertility. High stress during pregnancy can have significant consequences for the baby as well, including increased risk of pre-term birth, low birth weight, infant brain changes, and abnormal hormone signaling in the baby leading to an increased risk of health issues.
How do you cope with stress on womens health?
Specifically, women tend to deal with the effects of chronic stress in a variety of ways, some healthy and some harmful. Positive ways of coping with stress include finding relief by engaging in hobbies, regular exercise, having the support of friends and family, or seeking professional help through a therapist or psychiatrist. Some reach for less healthy ways of dealing with stress, however, such as increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, often resulting in devastating consequences on health, relationships, and employment.
Eating disorders can be another manifestation of the toll that chronic stress takes on women. In the face of high levels of stress, some women restrict their food intake, often becoming dangerously thin. Others turn to food in the form of binge eating; for some, it is accompanied by purging through vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives. This behavior can then become a vicious cycle that further impacts the body and the mind.
For example, ways that women can be proactive and practice self-care include:
- Regular exercise
- A healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains
- Minimizing use of caffeine and alcohol
- Practicing good sleep hygiene and making sleep a priority
- Cultivating healthy, positive relationships
- Meditation and other mind-body exercises
- Spirituality/Religious involvement
If chronic stress has resulted in significant levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction, or other worrisome medical problems, seek the help of a professional. Therefore, therapy can be an incredibly useful tool for dealing with chronic stress. If you suspect that you or another woman has an eating disorder, reach out to a program such as Selah House, where women struggling with eating disorders can receive intensive medical, psychological, nutritional and spiritual support. In fact, it is time for women to take our physical and mental health seriously.