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- Women are more likely than men to experience ongoing stress, partly because of family and social responsibilities, while men report more financial pressure.
- Major life events and physical problems - such as the death of a spouse or a serious illness - can cause stress as people age.
- People who provide care for friends and loved ones often experience stress caused by exhaustion, anger, guilt, and other difficult emotions.
- Jobs are a huge source of stress, because of deadline pressures, worries about layoffs, and demands for new technological skills.
Turn on the television and you will likely be bombarded by stories of financial problems, terrorist threats, and natural disasters. Add to this backdrop layoffs, illness, money woes, temper tantrums, and traffic jams - challenges you are more likely to face in your own life - and you can see that stressful situations are constant and inevitable.
Stress is part of life, and it affects everyone at one time or another. And to be clear, stress is not all bad. A certain amount of stress energizes people, improving performance and efficiency. It’s only when stress builds too high that problems can develop.
So much for generalities. The sort of stress you encounter, how you perceive it, and how you react to it depend on individual factors, such as:
- Whether you are male or female
- How old you are
- Whether you are caring for an elderly or sick relative
- Your employment situation
All of these factors affect stress—and how best to respond to it—in different ways.
How gender affects stress
The physiology of the stress response is similar for everyone. But some researchers believe that there are distinct differences in the way women and men experience and respond to stress.
Community surveys taken in many countries find women consistently report greater distress than men do. A study of roughly 1,100 American adults that appeared in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women were more likely than men to experience ongoing stress and feel that their lives were out of their control.
Why the disparity? There are probably several reasons for it.
Social responsibilities add up for women
Some researchers believe that the social responsibilities typically handled by women — including child care, care of older relatives, and housework — expose them to more abundant opportunities for distress. These responsibilities constitute the “second shift” for women who work outside the home.
This additional burden can lay the groundwork for long-term health problems, as was demonstrated in a large study of nurses. The women in the study charged with caring for a disabled or chronically ill spouse for nine or more hours a week were at increased risk of having a heart attack or other manifestation of coronary artery disease over a four-year period.
Financial pressure takes a toll on men
Men more often report financial stress than women do, which makes sense since men are traditionally expected to be breadwinners.
Men and women react differently to stress
A study asked 166 married couples to keep a daily diary tracking 21 common stressors, such as arguments and overloads at home and work, for six weeks. Here’s what it found:
- Wives proved 5% more likely than husbands to report days marked by “any distress” and 19% more likely to experience “high-distress” days.
- The women did not typically carry feelings of “high distress” from one day to the next, but did report facing a greater overall number of stressful situations.
- Certain demands affected men or women more. Men reacted more strongly to an argument with a child, financial woes, or work overload, for example, while women were more distressed by arguments with a spouse, transportation difficulties, or family demands.
Some interesting preliminary research suggests women and men tend to cope with stressful situations differently, too. A team of psychologists published a study in Psychological Review suggesting that women are less likely to fight or flee when faced with stressors. Instead, they are likely to “tend-and-befriend.” “Tending” is nurturing behavior designed to protect and relieve distress. “Befriending,” which may support tending, refers to seeking and maintaining social connections.
Biology explains some differences
Sex hormones and the pituitary hormone oxytocin are partly responsible for gender differences in the response to stress, and suggest that the “tend-and-befriend” behavior may have held evolutionary advantages for women.
- Effects of hormones. Oxytocin dampens anxiety and induces relaxation. Its effects are enhanced by female sex hormones and diminished by male sex hormones. When under stress, both men and women release epinephrine and cortisol; men also release testosterone, which tends to increase hostility and aggression.
- Evolutionary behavior. The impulse to fight or flee in the face of danger could have disastrous consequences for women, who tend to be smaller than men and may be pregnant or caring for small children. It is intriguing to speculate on whether “tend-and-befriend” could have positive consequences for women. After all, social connections are key to reducing the damaging effects of stress.
Age and stress
Age affects stress for several reasons. Often these factors interact to increase stress.
Aging brings new stressors
Major life events and physical problems can cause stress as people age. These include:
- The death of a spouse
- Ailments such as arthritis that cause pain and disability
- Life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease and cancer
- Unpleasant side effects from medications and other treatments
- Sleep disturbances.
In addition, a dwindling interest in exercise — tied, perhaps, to arthritis or compromised vision, hearing, and balance as you grow older — can make you more of a shut-in than you would like to be. This can set off a cycle of declining physical abilities and increasing frailty.
Is that stressful? Just ask anyone who worries that a walk outside might end in broken bones or finds it difficult to do simple tasks around the house. People do adapt to changing abilities, it’s true, but the road to that point may not be smooth.
Older people have unique social pressures
Each generation has its own social pressures and cultural constraints. Consider the following:
- Inhibition. Many older people were raised in environments where emotional displays were frowned upon.
- Conflict avoidance. Many older women never learned how to state needs directly or handle uncomfortable conflicts before they become a source of stress
- Career limitations. In addition, many older women never had abundant opportunities for work outside the home, which can offer a creative, productive outlet.
- Spiritual sustenance. On the other hand, many do take comfort from religion, which may have an effect on health and longevity.
Biological factors also change with time
Some preliminary evidence suggests that disturbances in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the stress response, compound certain health problems that are common among older people, such as cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Aging and long-term stress both appear to trigger HPA disturbances in some people. In addition, constant exposure to certain stress hormones, such as cortisol, can harm nerve cells in the hippocampus, potentially affecting learning and memory processing.
Change is possible at any age
Once you identify key sources of stress in your life, odds are good that you can overcome them. It’s possible to prevent or at least combat physical decline and some age-related ailments through exercise, good nutrition, appropriate medications, and stress-control techniques.
Caregiving and stress
Caring for others fulfills a basic social contract in ways that can draw generations and individuals closer to one another. Certainly, caring for an elderly parent or ailing spouse is a worthy, often satisfying pursuit.
But it isn’t easy. If you’re a caregiver, you may often wrestle with stress as well as exhaustion, anger, guilt, grief, and other difficult emotions.
More often than not, caregivers are women. The task is especially hard on women in the so-called sandwich generation, who are simultaneously caring for children and older parents, quite possibly while working outside the home, too.
Caring for others can affect your own health
While you attend to the needs of others, your own sense of well-being may head south. Studies of men and women responsible for the long-term care of relatives show that they have:
- Higher rates of illness
- Suppressed immune response
- Slower healing
- Increased likelihood of dying.
Additionally, research suggests that ongoing stress endured by older adults caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease had a negative impact on the caregiver’s own mental functioning.
Help yourself by practicing self-care
In order to give care, you need stress relief, support, and time for yourself and your family. The following tips may help.
- Relax. Practicing relaxation response techniques and self-nurturing techniques will enable you to feel calmer, happier, and better able to help others. If it’s too hard to find the time, consider getting extra help with some household tasks.
- Protect your own health. Research suggests that a caregiver’s immune function is often suppressed by the stress of caring for others. Boost your resistance by eating well, getting enough rest and exercise, and pursuing activities that bring you pleasure.
- Ask for help. Spell out to other family members what needs to be done and what sort of help would be best. If no one offers help, ask for it. When someone offers, accept it.
- Share the work. Write out a list of smaller tasks people can do, such as calling regularly, cooking an occasional dinner, and running errands, and dole these out. Or simply ask people to check off what they can do.
- Take a break. Take advantage of regular respite care from professionals, family, and friends to give yourself much-needed breaks.
- Join a support group. Talk out frustrations with other people in your situation and get helpful ideas. Some caregiver support groups are available online (such as a nationwide chat group run by AARP), while others are run by local hospitals, senior centers, and community groups.
Consider caring alternatives
If it’s getting too hard for you to fulfill certain needs, consider the following options:
- Paid help. If family members can’t help, consider a paid caregiver. Consult a geriatric care manager or a social worker for help on how to find one. Or ask your local council on aging or visiting nurse association should be able to help you find one.
- Assisted living. If necessary, consider another living arrangement that would help you meet your needs and those of your loved one. One popular alternative (though pricey) is assisted living, where your loved one has access to prepared meals and can get personal assistance.
Work and stress
Jobs are a huge source of stress. Roughly 75% of Americans cite work as a significant source of stress in their lives, according to a 2007 national poll by the American Psychological Association.
Here are some reasons why work is so stressful:
- Time crunch. Americans spend more time working than they did in previous decades.
- On call 24/7. Cell phones, telecommuting, e-mail, and fax machines have breached the wall between work and leisure time.
- Layoff worries. Frequent threats of layoffs and the flight of industries to markets where labor is cheaper fuel worker worries.
- Age factors. The jobs of older workers may be jeopardized by younger aspirants who are well-versed in new technologies or simply less costly to a corporation.
- Economic forces. A generally shaky economy and the rise in food and gas prices also feed anxiety.
All that job stress can affect you physically. One study, for example, linked job stress and heart disease. Researchers conducting this 2008 study, which involved 10,000 London-based male and female civil servants, found that chronic work stress was associated with coronary artery disease, especially among people under age 50.
Lack of work also takes a toll
Not working can be as stressful as working. Answering the often-asked question “What do you do?” can be troubling to people who are unemployed or retired. Even those who work as homemakers may feel anxious about it.
Too often, the jobs held by people define their places in society. Labels such as “stay-at-home mom,” “retired,” and “laid off” conjure up stereotypes. Then there are the financial pressures of not working or working in a nonpaying job.
Remember, work does have a silver lining
It’s important to point out--especially in this economy--that there are many positive aspects to having a job. Among them:
- New opportunities. Technological changes have led to the elimination of some dirty, tedious jobs while yielding new opportunities in challenging new fields.
- Self esteem. Positive psychological effects of work include greater self esteem and the joy of feeling challenged mentally.
Conduct a personal stress assessment
Regardless of broader economic trends, the impact of work stress often comes down to how your job affects you. Among the questions to ask yourself:
- Does your job engage and energize you or leave you sapped?
- Does it satisfy you?
- Do you get the support you need to do your job?
- How much control do you have over your work?
You can change some of these factors, but may have to learn how to cope with others.
Counter work-related stress
You can counter work-related stressors in many ways. Here are a few suggestions:
- Disarm your fears. Addressing cognitive distortions can help you manage realistic and unrealistic fears.
- Take care of yourself. Learning to relax and remembering to take care of yourself will lower your stress levels.
- Read up. Bookstores are filled with career advice ranging from identifying the work you love to acing job interviews.
- Branch out. Finally be aware, too, that there is a life beyond work where satisfaction and opportunity exist.
Defuse job stress throughout your day
No matter how you rate your job, you can find ways to defuse the stress response whenever work triggers it. One of the best ways to do so is to practice mindfulness techniques on a regular basis. Here are a few tips:
- Body scan. While driving to work, do a body scan - a way to relax by releasing muscle tension. Loosen your death grip on the steering wheel, lower your tensed shoulders, and let your tight tummy relax.
- Slow down. Stay in the right lane, and travel just at the speed limit.
- Take a moment. After you park, stay in your car for a minute and orient yourself to your day before going in to work.
- Relax. Throughout your workday, monitor your tension levels and stress warning signs. Consciously try to relax and let go of your tension.
- Take a break. Take a five-minute break every few hours, but use this time to take a walk instead of simply pausing.
- Breathe deeply. Deliberately set aside a few minutes every hour or two to take some deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
- Eat slowly. Have a mindful lunch in a new location, eating slowly and enjoying your time with yourself.
- Congratulate yourself. At the end of your workday, think back on the day and acknowledge and congratulate yourself on your accomplishments.
- Don’t rush. As you are driving home, be conscious of whether or not you are rushing. How does it feel? Try to slow down and relax.
- Get comfortable. When you arrive home, change out of your work clothes, take some deep breaths to center yourself and, when possible, allow yourself five minutes of quiet before delving into activities there.
Adapted with permission from Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing and Reducing Stress, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publications.