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The Most Common Causes of Stress in Women

Stress can be defined as any event that forces us to adapt to a new set of circumstances. It can be broken down into specific situations called stressors. When confronted with a stressful situation, our bodies respond with a chain of biochemical reactions which can affect our entire system. Responding to complex triggers from the brain, the adrenal glands start releasing hormones such as adrenaline. As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure rise, pupils dilate and we feel an increased sense of alertness.

There are three stages in this stress response including the so-called alarm, resistance and exhaustion stages. Initially, as we first confront a stressor, we may sweat and feel flushed while muscles in our stomach and limbs may tighten. It is at this stage that some people feel a surge of extraordinary strength which enables them to do things they never could do before. In the second phase, the release of specific hormones brings the body back to normal. Then in the last stage, as we recover from the stressful episode, we may feel exhausted. This stress response is a normal reaction to an abnormal incident. The body has naturally and safely protected itself from danger. But unrelieved, constant stress keeps our bodies in a permanent state of alert and can adversely affect our health.

How Much Stress Is Harmful?

Generally speaking, the same type of stress which may cause harm to one individual can have no negative impact on another. Leading stress researcher Richard Rahe estimated the degree of difficulty people experience when adjusting to certain stressful situations by establishing the so-called “Life Change Units” (LCUs), with scores ranging from 11 for a minor violation of law or Christmas approaching to 100 for the death of a spouse. The higher our total LCUs during a given period, the more careful we should be to handle stress appropriately (follow this link for Life Change Index Scale). However, one weakness of this measure is that the LCU of a stressful event varies from one person to the next. What seems as a real challenge for one person strikes another as a mild annoyance.

Sometimes a sudden tragedy sparks a psychiatric illness called acute stress disorder. This is much more serious than the usual stress people deal with in their daily lives. The typical symptoms of this disorder include a sense of being numb, diminished awareness of surroundings, depersonalization and a sense that things are not real. Acute stress disorder is treated with psychotherapy and medications. Another serious condition triggered by stress is called post-traumatic stress disorder. People suffering from this disorder tend to relive a devastating trauma from their past, such as the horrors experienced in war, until they become emotionally numb. Post-traumatic stress disorder also requires treatment with psychotherapy and medications.

Symptoms and Consequences of Stress

The changes the human body undergoes in reaction to stressors may produce symptoms that can make a person sick. By negatively affecting the body’s immune system, stress also increases our vulnerability to illness. For instance, people under stress are more prone to outbreaks of herpes and are more likely to contract common colds. Stress can also exacerbate or even cause unhealthy behaviors such as drinking, smoking, nail-biting or eating disorders. A high number of stressful situations can encourage development of type 2 diabetes whereas sudden trauma is linked to causing type 1 diabetes. However, physical reactions to stress are very individual. Therefore, it is important to understand the way our bodies react to stress. If you regularly experience any of the symptoms listed below and cannot identify an underlying physical cause, it is possible they were triggered by stress:

  • Digestive disorders
  • Headaches and Migraines
  • Neck aches and back spasms
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Cardiovascular irregularities
  • Menstrual problems
  • Skin disorders – acne, hives and other rashes

Digestive Disorders

The chain of chemical reactions triggered by stress has a direct impact on the digestive tract whereas women seem to be more likely than men to suffer from stomach pain and bowel problems resulting from stress. There are several digestive disorders associated with stress.

Nonulcer Dyspepsia is a common digestive disorder in women characterized by stomach discomfort and cramps that cannot be linked to any specific cause. It has no obvious underlying cause and it is not a true disease. This condition is difficult to diagnose because no tests or exams can confirm its existence. Having no organic cause, nonulcer dyspepsia is also hard to treat.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome or spastic colon is yet another digestive disorder that can be triggered by stress, having no organic cause. It is much more common in women than men. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, moderate to severe cramping and bouts of diarrhea and constipation. This condition is also difficult to treat.

Stomach Ulcers have for years been blamed on stress. Now we know that a bacterium is the initial cause of most ulcers. However, stress can seriously aggravate this condition.

Sleep Disorders

Insomnia, characterized as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep as long as desired, belongs among the most common signs of stress. It probably is also one of the most difficult symptoms to avoid. Insomnia deprives the already stressed-out woman of much needed rest that comes with a good night’s sleep and in turn leads to even more stress. Although an occasional sleeplessness is no cause for alarm, if sleep problems last longer than four weeks they can become chronic and difficult to cure. Often, the only possible cure for insomnia is to eliminate the cause (stress) or to adjust to the new situation.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a natural result of chronic, unrelieved stress. Other causes include sleep-deprivation and a variety of chronic conditions. If you feel constant fatigue, you should first determine whether you are getting all the sleep your body deserves. A vacation is a good time to determine that. After a couple of days on vacation, note how long you sleep naturally. This is the average amount of sleep your body needs to get consistently.

Cardiovascular Irregularities

It has been found that the estrogen loss that follows menopause can make the heart more vulnerable to the effects of stress. For example, older women who took stressful mental tests exhibited higher heart rates and elevated blood pressures than younger women or men. It was concluded that postmenopausal women were three times more likely to respond to stress with episodes of abnormal heart function than younger women and men. It is believed that estrogen can not only prevent the excessive production of stress hormones that afflict menopausal women faced with stressful events but it can also reduce stress-related spikes in blood pressure.

Menstruation, Infertility and Pregnancy

The levels of estrogen and progesterone in female body tend to decrease in periods of prolonged stress. This can lead to menstrual irregularities and diminished sex drive. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that physical stressors have adverse effects on the menstrual cycle. For example, the menses of female athletes are often irregular and sometimes even cease during periods of excessive training, as do those of women who suffer from anorexia and bulimia. It is also believed that elevated stress may raise the risk of premenstrual syndrome.

In Western society infertility has a physiological cause 80-90% of the time. Stress can, therefore, also affect female fertility, by causing a decrease in hormonal levels and irregular menstrual cycles. Moreover, stress during pregnancy may have negative impact on both mother and baby, sometimes leading to premature births and a low birth weight.

Back and Neck Pain

Painful spasms in the neck and back muscles can be a result of stress induced muscle tension. An estimated 80% of people will experience neck or back aches at some point during their lives. Our posture and muscle tone, the chair we use and the type of work we do can all affect our susceptibility to back and neck pain.

Headaches and Migraines

Headaches and migraines often occur due to stress-related factors. Reactions to stress that may trigger these painful conditions include constriction of blood flow, muscle tension, teeth-grinding and even congested sinuses. In fact, the link between headache and stress is much stronger in women than it is in men.

Skin Disorders

Stress can cause or aggravate a variety of skin conditions, including hives, acne, lichen planus, psoriasis and neurodermatitis. Since there are so many other factors that can also affect the skin, such as allergies, wrong diet, medications and overexposure to the sun, it is usually difficult to estimate the role that stress plays in these complex disorders. The best first step is to seek the advice of a good dermatologist.

Where to Get More Information:
American Institute of Stress: Why Do Women Suffer More from Stress?
American Psychological Association: Gender and Stress