How stress affects women

Stress emerges as one of the foremost obstacles hindering the acceleration, progress, growth, and empowerment of women.

THE month of March was women’s month.Individuals and organisations across the globe took time to celebrate and appreciate women for their role and contribution to communities and world at large.

International Women’s Day holds particular significance as a dedicated moment to address the pressing needs of women, and to unite efforts in closing gender disparities.

 It serves as an opportunity to collaborate and empower women, enabling them to fulfil their crucial roles across various spheres of influence.

The United Nations(UN) Women theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “Invest in women: Accelerate Progress”.

Stress emerges as one of the foremost obstacles hindering the acceleration, progress, growth, and empowerment of women. It operates akin to a pandemic, destabilising and disrupting women's efforts to advance not only up the corporate ladder but also along social and spiritual pathway

The October 2023 Stress in America survey by the American Psychological Association stated that women continued to report higher stress levels than men.

I believe that the most critical investment for women is helping them develop effective coping mechanisms so that stress does not become an impediment but rather a motivation to grow, progress and be productive.

It is an open secret that there is very little anyone can do to stop stressful events from happening, but there is so much that a woman can do to stop stress from choking and derailing her.

“Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And our response is something we can choose,” Maureen Killoran said.

I like the part where the authors says, ‘our response is something we can choose’. The ability to choose the right response, however, is something that ought to be learned, it is hardly an inborn trait.

Investing in women, therefore, calls for action directed at building their mental capacity to handle and overcome adversity. Now that women’s month has come and gone, it does not mean that we shelve our focus on women.

Instead from now until March, we should put into action, all that we have learned from the various platforms and broadcasting channels, regarding the support our daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, aunties and grandmothers need. 

So what is it that needs to be done to support women win the war against stress? We can start by taking a look at the generic causes of stress for women.

Sources of stress for women

Sources of stress for women range from biological to environmental to social and economic factors. Women’s biological cycles, namely having to deal mensuration challenges, pregnancy and child bearing challenges and towards the end of life, menopausal challenges.

The hormonal changes that take place during these major milestones in a woman’s life can cause a lot of discomfort, pain and illness in some women, hence placing a huge stress burden on them.

The patriarchal system, under which most women live, has its own burdens that may cause a lot emotional distress on women. Patriarchy, a social system in which men hold primary power and dominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. It often gives rise to gender inequalities, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, forced marriages, child marriages and unequal access to resources.

These are some of the cultural norms  and practices that cause a lot of stress for women. Since World War II, more and more women have found themselves joining the workforce. However, they still have to continue taking care of their cultural responsibilities and care-giver roles for children, spouses, in-laws and the elderly.

They also have to perform as good as their male counterparts at work. The difficulties in striking a healthy balance have been one of the major causes of stress for women because when a woman is operating under such conditions, she often succumbs to the devastating effects of stress.

Symptoms of stress for women

Now, how can a woman tell that I am stressed out and I need to reach out for help? Stress in women can manifest as physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms. The emotional symptoms may include feelings of being overwhelmed, having mood swings, being anxious, feeling depressed, anger outbursts and irritability, lack of drive and low motivation.

The cognitive symptoms often include racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, difficulty making decisions, negative or repetitive thinking.

The physical symptoms of stress, which are also called psychosomatic symptoms, manifest in the form of muscle tension and headaches, fatigue and low energy, sleep problems, changes in appetite, digestive problems, low libido, menstrual irregularities, fertility problems and in some cases skin problems.

Impact of stress on women

When a woman is stressed out, she is slowed down, low on energy, ineffective and cannot focus. Her judgement is clouded. She develops memory issues. She procrastinates, has unexplained aches and pains, and eventually she fails to cope with life. This messes both her professional and personal relations.

Stress remedies for women

The number one therapy for stress is self-care. Self-care can best be described as setting aside time, energy and resources to attend to your physical and psychological needs.

Our bodies are always communicating with us, alerting us whenever something is not working well and, therefore, needing attention. However, we often ignore these alerts and warning signs and we keep on going until such a time the system snaps and it forces us to drastically slow down or stop completely.

Self-care begins by self-awareness and this is the most critical step when addressing and managing stress. Self-awareness for a woman begins by knowing and setting her values.

Values are like personal goals that direct one’s decisions, choices and actions towards achieving them. One human resources consultant once defined what values are in a way that made sense to me leading me,  to adopting it.

He said values are those attributes or phenomena that make you feel happy and content if they happen. If for example, a woman’s value is family, she will be easily stressed out if she finds a very good job, which keeps her very far away from her family.

On the contrary, a woman, whose value is money, will be very happy to find a job very far from home that allows her to provide for their family.

So self-awareness helps a woman to know what works for her and what does not, hence avoids stress. She knows her strengths and weaknesses. She operates within her competencies and capacities. Self-awareness helps her to set realistic and achievable goals. Self-awareness helps her know her purpose and pursue it.

Self-awareness leads to self-protection  of habits and behaviours.  A woman, who values wellness, knows that she cannot always sleep very late at night because it causes her to wake up feeling sluggish, slow and sickly.

Another, who values family, knows that if she does not call her siblings often she will begin to feel lonely and that would stress her out.

A woman, who values peace, knows that she cannot be confrontational with a difficult colleague at work because it will disturb her peace, thereby, stressing her out.

Self-awareness helps a woman to quickly identify the stress warning signs. She can, hence, immediately take the right steps towards rectifying things.

The standard self-care activities for women include adequate sleep, rest, a healthy diet, exercise, setting healthy boundaries and staying connected.

 Adequate sleep allows the brain to calm down and get to the rest and digest mode which help to lower stress levels in the body. It is recommended that an average adult woman requires seven to nine hours of sleep daily to achieve stress-free goals.

Taking healthy breaks during a hectic day can go a long way in reducing stress levels. Even a few minutes of escaping to a quiet place, closing your eyes and just focusing on your breath and nothing else and help the brain to refresh and recharge.

 A good diet promotes good health not just for the body but for the brain as well. Good nutrition supports the growth of healthy brain cells and these can help fight off the symptoms of stress.

 Exercise helps the body to produce endorphins, the feel good hormones that can help the body to relieve tension hence reducing the symptoms of stress.

Staying connected is a very effective way of reducing stress. We are social animals and people with strong family or social connections are generally healthier than those who lack a strong support network.

Danzae Pace said: "Stress is the trash of modern life. We all generate it, but if you don't dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life".

My message to all the women out there is, whilst we hope that someone somewhere will rise to invest in us to accelerate our growth, let us be investing in ourselves through self-care activities and developing effective coping mechanisms because with a stress-free mind, we can do the impossible.

  • Mhaka is a wellness consultant, who focuses on mental health awareness, mindset development and mental strength training. She is the executive director of BeMindFit, an author and public speaker. These weekly New Horizon articles,   published in the  Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge,  an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852


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