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Health and Wellness

By Rachna D. Jain Psy.D.

More stressed than he is? It's not all in your head!

Stress. That feeling of being overwhelmed by everything you should do, but don’t seem to have time for. We’re all bound to experience stress by virtue of being human. By itself, stress is neither good nor bad. It's our responses to stress that can be problematic. Alice Domar, head of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston's Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, told The Baltimore Sun that women are more sensitive than men (2004).


Where does this stress come from?

In a time where men and women both hold jobs outside the home, spend time taking care of household duties, and are equally successful, why is it that women might be feeling more stress than men? There are five main reasons why women are more likely to experience the negative effects of stress.

Model: Aarti Sharma. Photographer: Natalia Kowaleczko

Multitasking. Women generally hold multiple roles. They not only have their own identities but are also wives, daughters, managers, mothers and friends. Unlike men, women shift between these roles frequently. This constant juggling of personas increases emotional pressure. Neurological studies have documented that women have a greater number of interconnections between both hemispheres of their brain than men. So, in essence, women are biologically built to multitask.

Fear of failure. Many women are inclined to “do it all” or “have it all.” Women want to be successful in work, marriage, parenting, and friendship. With this ravenous appetite for success, is it any wonder that women feel totally stressed out? In fact, some studies have shown that women can, at various points in their lives, experience stress so severe that it’s similar to those of soldiers in combat. Take Swati (28), for example, a single, attractive South Asian women who avoids her friends and family whenever she gains a few pounds or gets a few pimples. She feels a ton of pressure to “look good, no matter what.” On top of the physical and emotional stress of weight gain or slightly bad skin, she feels more stressed because she doesn’t believe that she can reach out for support and understanding, thinking that people expect her to be perfect.

Physical vulnerability. Women are more physically vulnerable and need to be “on guard” more than men. This need for awareness applies to traveling to and from work, exercising outdoors or going out socially. Having to constantly worry about personal safety can increase perceptions of stress.

Cultural pressures. In order to be seen as successful, women must have good relationships, get along with their kids, stay connected to their friends, do well at work, and feel very confident about who they are and how they look. Additionally, self-esteem is tied to appearance for most women. In fact, some psychological research indicates that women lose up to 50% of their personal confidence and esteem on days when they don’t think they look good.

This type of pressure is perhaps the most prevalent for women who are in the “marriage sweepstakes.” Unmarried South Asian women experience tremendous amounts of cultural pressure to look good, meet a suitable boy, and get married quickly. Not only must they contend with the demands of their lives as individuals, they also must contend with an almost constant barrage of well-meaning advice from parents, uncles, and aunties. When fledgling relationships don’t work out, the women must also bear the weight of scrutiny about each and every personal flaw - real or imagined.

Caretaking. No matter how much we push for equality, women seem to be the primary caretakers. Frequently, they defer their own needs to nurture others. This, in combination with the other stressors women face, can be extremely exhausting. Stress is a huge problem for women, especially between the ages of 35-40, when women may be caught in the "sandwich" generation where they are responsible for taking care of both young children and elderly parents.


Are you too stressed?

While general sources of stress provide a framework for understanding the role of stress in women’s life, how can you, personally, gauge when your personal stress level has become too high? Watch out for the following feelings:

*You feel bad, angry, sad, overwhelmed or depressed most of the time. This may signal that your lifestyle is moving you into the exhaustion phase of a prolonged stress response.

*You feel like you can’t relax, can’t calm down, can’t “stop moving” for fear of missing, failing, or losing out on something. The inability to relax or calm down can cause a prolonged internal cascade of stress hormones which can, eventually, lead to hair loss, weight gain, bad skin and digestive disorders.

*You feel hopeless and helpless about making changes. You start to feel that there isn’t anything you can do to get back in balance or make your life work better for you.

*You start to have eating problems, sleeping problems, or mood problems, especially unexplained crying jags and high irritability. Cortisol is one of the key hormones related to stress. The body tries to get rid of excessive cortisol through crying. So if you’re crying a lot, "for no good reason" - it can often be a useful indicator of high stress.


So, how can you better manage your stress?

Get back to the basics. Eating well, eliminating sugar, caffeine, and highly processed foods, can help calm your body down. Avoid eating meals of pure carbohydrates as these can rev up your system when you need it to calm down. Drinking enough pure water (as opposed to sugary or diet drinks) can also help flush out any excess cortisol. Sleeping enough can go a long way to giving your body a chance to repair and maintain itself. Plus, aside from the mental health benefits, these simple strategies will help you retain your good looks.

Cultivate a long-term perspective. Practice asking yourself, “Will this matter in five years?” Sometimes, taking a more patient viewpoint can dramatically reduce your immediate stress. Get clear on what’s most important to you in your life. Distress arises when we live a life that is not in line with our deepest priorities. If you value time with your family or friends, but you never seem to have time to see them, you will feel more stress because you’re not living according to what truly matters to you.

Ask for help. If you live a life in which you focus mainly on what you do best, and get help for the rest, you will feel more joy, satisfaction and a deeper sense of purpose.

Stress management is a skill that can be learned, but once learned, needs to be actively practiced. Since you might experience more stress than the man in your life, it’s vital that you take time to manage your stress appropriately so you have the time, energy and resources to devote to your own happiness.

 



Dr. Rachna D. Jain is a licensed psychologist and professional coach who is regularly quoted in the national media. Based in the Washington, DC metro area, Rachna can be reached online at http://www.rachnajain.com.


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