In the present times, everyone is speeding up to finish one deadline or another whether in the context of work, studies, household, relationships or family. This creates stress.
Stress is of two varieties ‘eustress’ or the helpful stress and ‘distress’, the unhelpful or the malicious stress. While some degree of stress and tension is often desirable to push us out of the relaxed mode and get working, distress is often very malicious to our physical and psychological well-being. We tend to experience distress when we are unable to cope effectively with the demands, expectations and pressures that we experience either from the external world or from within us. Any stress that has moderate immediate effects is usually handled by most of the people effectively. However, if the stressor persists for a long period of time, there are enduring changes in our thinking, feeling, behavior and body.
Although, each woman’s experience of stress would vary from others as it depends upon her ability to cope, the current life context and also the extent of self-awareness that she has into her own inner world; what one woman finds stressful at a particular time, other women may not. What one woman acknowledges as stress, other women may not. Sources of stress tend to be different for men and women and gender differences are also seen in the way men and women respond to stressful events. Many research studies indicate that women are more likely than men to experience stress by virtue of multiple roles that they are expected to play in contemporary times: a professional, a homemaker and a mother. Doing a balancing act within these diverse roles is a daunting task that inevitably leads to stress.
Women are highly relationship oriented and it is also in the context of their intimate relationships that they experience stress. And when women are stressed they also turn to relationships for solace. Care giving to the children, spouse, in-laws and extended family is considered to be a primary responsibility of women in our culture. Although the joys of care giving may promote good physical and mental health it can also be a source of stress especially when the woman is expected to manage all single-handedly.
Symptoms of Stress in Women
The following is a list of major symptoms that women in general may experience while being stressed:
1) Changes in appetite and weight: When women get stressed they may experience intense emotional craving for food and overeat and if this becomes a major coping mechanism to fight stress then they end up gaining weight. At the opposite end of the continuum are women whose appetite declines due to chronic stress, they eat less and less and their body weight reduces.
2) Tension headaches: These are the headaches, which may occur when stress levels are high. In cases where the stress tends to be chronic and continuous they even may occur on a daily basis and are not alleviated despite popping in pills.
3) Memory problems: In a usual Indian family, one may find everyone complaining about the woman being somewhat ‘absent minded.’ There may be instances where the lunch was packed but not put in the school bags; the house keys were forgotten at the neighbor’s place or the milk was left unattended on the burner, etc. These instances do not indicate a clinical memory disorder but they happen because there are so many things to be done and the mind gets so stressed keeping long lists of tasks that certain tasks are missed out. This further adds to the stress, as the woman feels guilty for not doing things properly or is reprimanded by others in the house.
4) Reproductive problems: Stress can upset the homeostasis of the hormones that govern the reproductive cycle. A woman suffering from chronic stress may notice that her menstrual periods become irregular or even absent. She also becomes prone to developing vaginal infections.
5) Physical illnesses: There is an intimate link between our mind and body, the way we feel affects our body. High levels of stress attack our body and weaken the immune system. This makes the person vulnerable to a gamut of physical ailments and bodily dysfunctions. As a result women are more prone to developing common infections and skin diseases. Common physical manifestations are: chest pain, difficulty in breathing, irritable bowel syndrome, lack of interest in sex, indigestion, hypertension, cardiovascular ailments, diarrhea, dizziness, constipation and stomach cramps.
6) Muscle pain: Muscle aches and spasm may occur in various parts of the body due to feelings of anxiety and tension. On several occasions, women do not realize that it is due to stress but keep on self-medication to counter these symptoms. As these symptoms are stress related medication rarely improves the condition.
7) Irritability: A long list of tasks to be done at home and office makes the woman feel overwhelmed and irritable. After a while the person develops a labile mood and gets irritated at minor provocations and tensions. She displaces this pent up fury onto weaker targets usually the children or family members. When she expresses this irritability at home, hardly anyone understands this feeling and its context but she is rebuked for the same and this precipitates further stress.
8) Sleep difficulties: Due to stress many women do not get sound sleep, they report being awakened by slight noises, disturbances or the stress that they have to get up early in the morning before everyone and carry out the household work. Some women also experience difficulty in falling of to sleep or remaining asleep once the sleep has been initiated.
As women primarily experience stress owing to their multiple roles, the first and foremost step for a woman in managing stress should be creating a balance in all the roles, actively seeking cooperation of other family members in household chores, childrearing and care giving.