Women and Stress: How to Prevent Burnout and Care for Yourself

From stress about bills to work-induced anxiety, no one will skate through life entirely stress-free. Although everyone has been given a spiel on how some amount of stress is good and can even be motivating, too much stress is never a good thing—and can have a negative impact on health and wellbeing.

Stress can be debilitating for individuals, regardless of biological sex or gender identity, and in severe cases can keep you from living a fulfilled, happy life. Those who identify as women will also experience new kinds of stressors and stress that are completely different from the experiences of men.

Read on to learn more about managing your stress as a woman to keep it from consuming you, and don't forget to read the infographic on how stress affects women.

Table of Contents:

Stress Is on the Rise for Women

Generally, there are two different types of stress[1] that everyone experiences. There is short-term stress, which is generally only experienced for a short period of time (ranging from a few minutes to a day or two). Short-term stress can be caused by scenarios like:

  • Being late for a meeting
  • An upcoming work deadline
  • Arguments with a friend, family member, or partner

Then there's long-term (or chronic) stress, which can impact the person affected by it for extended periods of time — such as a month or even a year. Long-term stress scenarios can include, but aren't limited to:

  • Traumatic events (like accidents or disasters)
  • Poverty or significant financial concerns
  • Discrimination and/or harassment

While everyone can experience these kinds of stress, in both of these forms stress affects women at a much higher rate. In a survey[2] conducted by the American Psychological Association, individuals who self-identified as women on average were more likely than individuals who self-identified as men (28 percent of women vs. 20 percent of men) to report having a great deal of stress—ranking it as an eight, nine, or 10 on a 10-point scale.

How Stress Affects Women Differently

In addition to all the day-to-day stress that comes from work, navigating personal and romantic relationships, and making daily decisions, women can face a host of different stressors and reactions to stress.

Due to differences in hormone levels (including sex hormones, like estrogen, which can also impact stress hormone, cortisol, response), individuals assigned female at birth are often at higher risk[3] of developing mood disorders as a result of stress during hormonal shifts throughout different phases of their lives. This can include puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum, and postmenopause. Learn more about the impacts hormones can have on anxiety and stress here.

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Long-Term Impacts of Stress in Women

Not only do women experience stress differently, but the effects of chronic stress on women are also different (and can be drastic). Learn more about the long-term impacts that stress can have on women so you can keep your health under your control.

Fertility + Hormones

While it's been observed that fertility issues can cause stress, the link between stress and fertility issues is still being studied. However, one modeling study found that high daily stress was associated with hormonal changes and increased likelihood of sporadic anovulation (the lack or absence of ovulation) among women with no previously known reproductive disorders[4].

Stress has also been observed[5] to cause an increased severity in perimenstrual syndrome, which affects an estimated 40–60 percent of reproductive-aged women. Surveyed women that experienced symptoms of perimenstrual syndrome (such as cramping, pain, discomfort, or crying) showed a positive correlation between increased symptom severity and stress levels.

These studies suggest that without stress management, chronic stress can affect aspects of your menstrual health and fertility journey.

Stress can also impact a woman's sexual desire, as their many responsibilities and other stressors may limit how often they wish to have sex.

Weight

While women's weight can often fluctuate due to hormonal changes and during menstrual cycles, there has been a suggested link between weight fluctuation and high amounts of stress. The reasons behind this are still being studied, but researchers have pointed to a variety of reasons how stress can cause changes in weight and body composition in women:

  • Stress may reduce[6] your energy levels, making you less likely to be active.
  • Stress can slow down[7] your metabolism and increase fat storage, particularly in the abdominal region[8]
  • High levels of cortisol (as determined by a cortisol test) can increase appetite with a propensity for increased intake of high calorie “comfort” foods[7]

To keep stress from changing your healthy habits, try to incorporate workouts into your schedule two to three times per week; and ensure you're eating nutritious, healthy foods[9] to keep you full and energized.

Gastrointestinal

The gastrointestinal system and brain are in near-constant communication thanks to the hundreds of millions of neurons in the gut. However, stress can affect[10] the communication between the brain and gastrointestinal system, which may trigger bloating, pain, and general discomfort to be felt more easily.

Stress has been associated with changes in the makeup of bacteria found in the gut, which may in turn impact one's mood[11]. Stress especially affects people with irritable bowel disease—such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis—and those with irritable bowel syndrome, possibly due to their increased sensitivity to changes in the gut microbiota.

Stress can affect many parts of the gastrointestinal system including the esophagus, stomach, and bowels. Some of the difficulties stress presents may include:

  • Increase in severity of regularly occurring heartburn
  • Increase in burping, gassiness, and bloating due to changes in or difficulty swallowing
  • Pre-existing ulcers becoming more bothersome
  • Pain or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels
  • Painful muscle spasms in the bowels
  • Weakened intestinal barrier, allowing gut bacteria to enter the body

If you notice any changes in your gastrointestinal behavior during times of high stress, consult your healthcare provider or a gastroenterologist.

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Cardiovascular

Excessive stress can cause many different physical reactions, and cardiovascular issues are no different. Though more research is needed to support how stress can contribute to heart disease, high stress levels over time can cause hypertension (high blood pressure) or an increased heart rate, both of which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke[12][10].

Stress can also impact women’s cardiovascular health in sneakier ways. Periods of chronic stress may cause individuals to engage in activities or behaviors that are known risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, overeating or putting off exercise.

Stress may pose different threats[10] for women's cardiovascular health depending on whether they are premenopausal or postmenopausal. Before women reach menopause, levels of estrogen appear to help blood vessels respond better during times of perceived stress and protect from heart disease. However, lower levels of protective estrogen in postmenopausal women, puts them at greater risk for the effects of stress on their hearts.

To keep your heart healthy and save yourself from the more intense physical side effects of chronic stress, find a stress management technique that works best for you.

Stress Management: 8 Techniques

It's important to remember you're not alone when experiencing high levels of stress that impact your mental wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. If needed, you may want to look into seeking professional help for stress management or a clinical diagnosis and treatment of a stress disorder.

When To Seek Help For Stress

When experiencing chronic stress, it's important to remember that you aren't alone and don't have to navigate your stress by yourself. If your stress is feeling too heavy for you to manage yourself or is beginning to impact your day-to-day functions, you should seek the help of a licensed mental health practitioner or medical professional.

You may want to look into professional help[13] if:

  • You're experiencing many physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, weight fluctuation, sleeping problems, or gut issues
  • You constantly feel overwhelmed or on edge
  • You have trouble concentrating or getting work done
  • You experience insomnia or issues sleeping
  • You've turned to less healthy coping mechanisms, such as heavy drinking

While there are many signs that it's time to find some help for your stress, those are just a few that may indicate you may need some assistance.

If you're looking for at-home solutions before or in conjunction with seeking professional help, check out these tips on managing your stress from home—and learn more about mail-in test options for women to measure and track their levels of key hormones that contribute to overall health and wellbeing from the comfort of home.

1. Identify Sources of Stress

If you've been feeling overwhelmed about everything going on in your life, see if it's possible to attribute that back to one or two main stressors. Has work been needing you to put in long hours lately, causing you to push back your housework and let it pile up? Have you and your partner been arguing more than usual, causing friction in your home and interactions?

Identifying what's causing you stress can then help you adjust your response accordingly, as well as get to the root of your stress and (hopefully) alleviate it.

Try: If your job is throwing your work-life balance out of whack, see if you can talk to your boss about adjusting your schedule. If you and your partner are arguing, schedule a time to sit down together and talk.

2. Adjust Stress Responses

While some stress is normal, sometimes your body's stress response doesn't match the scenario. For example, if you feel stressed out at the prospect of calling a restaurant for take-out, that may be an overreaction on your body's end.

If you find yourself getting stressed about something that probably doesn't require an overly stressful response, see if you can adjust your thinking and response.

Try: If your heart is still racing hours after you opened a stressful email, process with yourself that the stressful period is over and you don't need to be in fight-or-flight mode anymore.

3. Balance Stress with Joy

Doing things we enjoy and that make us happy doesn't have to be reserved for weekends or vacations. If your stress levels have been high recently, think back to the last time you did something for yourself—this can be as simple as working out, visiting with friends, trying a new restaurant or going to a concert.

Try: If it's been two weeks or more since you did something that makes you happy, try to focus on incorporating more of those activities into your routine.

4. Get Outside

Staying at your desk or in your house won't help you relieve your stress, especially if work tasks or housework are causing you stress. Getting outside to move your body, breathe in fresh air, and be in nature has been proven[14] to be beneficial for lowering stress levels. If you find your stomach churning or mind racing due to stress, step outside for a moment if you can to center yourself.

Try: Scheduling 30 minutes per day of outside time when possible, for running, walking, gardening, reading, etc.

5. Ask for Help

As previously mentioned, you don't need to navigate your stress journey alone, especially if it's taking a toll on other areas of your life. You can see a licensed mental health professional or healthcare provider to help with stress management and offload or outsource some of the smaller things that may stress you out.

For example, if the thought of cooking dinner at the end of a long day brings you to tears, consider using a meal delivery service or meal prepping for the week ahead over the weekend. Or if a certain work task is giving you stomach aches and keeping you up at night, discuss potentially offloading that task or getting assistance on it with your manager.

Try: Identifying three stressors per week that you can get help completing or even offload.

6. See Your Loved Ones

Sometimes all you need to help you with a particularly stressful time is being with a friend, family member, or other loved one. You can be your true, authentic self with someone who knows and cares about you, and they can help remind you of the more important things in life that aren't your stressors.

Try: Setting time aside one or two times a week to call, video chat, or see a loved one to chat with.

7. Step Away from the Screen

mood-tracker-mockup

Especially if your job is done on a computer, it's important to take time away from screens each day. Scientists are just beginning to understand[15] the impact that blue light emitted from screens has on people's moods and mental health, but the link between light and moods has long been understood.

Try: Picking up or re-engaging with a hobby each night that doesn't require you to look at a screen, such as reading, embroidery, sports, or painting.

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8. Move Your Body

Exercise has long been linked[16] with the release of endorphins, happiness, and overall better life satisfaction. If you've been experiencing high levels of stress, try incorporating exercise (at whatever level you're comfortable with) into your routine, anywhere from one to three times a week. This can help you step away from work- and home-related stress, especially if you work out outside or at a gym.

Try: Going for a walk, run, swimming, or doing yoga a few times per week to get you out of your chair and moving your body.

The tips provided in this article are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment of other mental health conditions, such as depression or chronic fatigue syndrome. It is recommended to seek the advice of a mental health professional or qualified healthcare provider if you have additional questions or concerns about your condition.

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Sources:

  1. Maeng, Lisa Y., and Mohammed R. Milad. “Sex Differences in Anxiety Disorders: Interactions Between fear, Stress, and Gonadal Hormones.” National Institute of Health, 14 April 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4823998/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  2. “Gender and Stress.” American Psychological Association, 2010, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress. Accessed 2 June 2021.
  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women's Health. “Stress and Your Health.” Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2019, https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/good-mental-health/stress-and-your-health. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  4. Schliep, Karen C., et al. “Perceived stress, reproductive hormones. and ovulatory function: a prospective cohort study.” National Institute of Health, Epidemiology, March 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315337/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  5. Gollenberg, Audra L., et al. “Perceived Stress and Severity of Perimenstrual Symptoms: The BioCycle Study.” National Institute of Health, May 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875955/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  6. Sinha, Rajita, and Ania M. Jastreboff. “Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction.” National Institute of Health, Biol Psychiatry, 1 May 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658316/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  7. Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., et al. “Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity.” National Institute of Health, Biol Psychiatry, 14 July 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4289126/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  8. van der Valk, Eline S., et al. “Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?” National Institute of Health, 16 April 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5958156/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/index.html. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  10. American Psychological Association. “Stress effects on the body.” American Psychological Association, 1 November 2018, https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  11. Frontiers in Genetics. ”Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies.” National Institute of Health, 19 February 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389720/. Accessed 29 June 2021.
  12. American Heart Association. “Stress and Heart Health.” American Heart Association, 17 June 2014, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  13. Cleveland Clinic. “Emotional Stress: Warning Signs, Management, When to Get Help.” Cleveland Clinic, 29 December 2020, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/6406-emotional-stress-warning-signs-management-when-to-get-help. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  14. Ewert, Alan, and Yun Chang. “Levels of Nature and Stress Response.” National Institute of Health, 17 May 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981243/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  15. Bedrosian, T A, and R J Nelson. “Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits.” National Institute of Health, Translational Psychiatry, 31 January 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5299389/. Accessed 3 June 2021.
  16. An, Hsin-Yu, et al. “The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Life Satisfaction and Happiness Among Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults.” National Institute of Health, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 July 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7369812/. Accessed 3 June 2021.