Ladies, don’t let stress make you sick; how to fight it and win

UAB experts say women experience stress differently from men. That can take a physical toll, but simple changes will help.

Any time life hands us a stressful situation, we have a decision to make: will we handle it with grace, or let it pile up on everything else? For women, stress sometimes feels like a never-ending occurrence, and University of Alabama at Birmingham experts say that, left unmanaged, stress can lead to health problems. But it can easily be curtailed.

nycu_stress_sStress is a feeling you get when faced with a challenge, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. While everyone responds to stress differently, common signs include changes in eating habits, feeling like you have no control, forgetfulness, headaches, lack of energy and focus, short temper, trouble sleeping, upset stomach and aches and pains. Studies show that women experience more physical symptoms of stress than men.

“Women experiencing stress differently from men often has to do with the roles they impose on themselves,” explains Susanne Fogger, D.N.P., assistant professor in the UAB School of Nursing and a long-time psychiatric nurse practitioner. “Ask a woman what her roles are and she may reply: wife, mother, sister, friend, caregiver, cook, cleaner, worker, and so on. Ask a man what his role is and he may mention worker, husband, father — but he may not incorporate as many roles as women often do.”

Fogger adds that “some of the stress caused by these many roles is self-imposed, because often roles could be given up.” However, she notes, “women often have difficulty letting go without feeling guilty about not being able to maintain that role.”

But letting the pressure of this load continually weigh on the body can lead to trouble.

Tips to avoid the negative impacts of stress:
1. Exercise daily
2. Take time to unwind before sleep
3. Eat a balanced diet
4. Seek out supportive people

“Our bodies release the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine during stressful events, and these are responsible for the elevation of blood pressure, heart rate and blood glucose levels,” explains Aimee Holland, D.N.P., coordinator of the Dual Adult Nurse Practitioner/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Program in the School of Nursing.

“It’s not good for the human body to continuously be exposed to stress hormones, because this can lead to depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and menstrual changes,” Holland says.

In fact, “stress is erosive,” says Fogger, “in the sense that the longer a person remains under what they perceive as stress, the less their body is able to fight off infection because their natural immune system decreases. Stress is inevitable, and not all stress is bad, but how one handles it makes the difference in being able to stay healthy or getting sick.”

Fogger says the first step to protect against the negative impacts of stress is to exercise.

“Getting active on a daily basis, even for just 30 minutes, helps people better manage stress,” Fogger says. “If your body is in better shape, with better muscle tone, it is better able to tolerate stress, whatever it is.”

Keep in mind, Fogger says, that you shouldn’t be exercising within a half hour of going to sleep, because the activity will wake you up. The exception to this rule? Sex.

“Sex doesn’t count as ‘exercise’ in this case because it relaxes you — it is a great stress-reducer,” Fogger says.

Another way to reduce stressful sleep is by cutting out work within one to two hours of going to bed.

“Your brain needs time to unwind, and if you work close to bedtime your brain is still working,” Fogger stresses. “Don’t contaminate sleep time with work time.”

Also, consider what you are putting into your body. Fogger says it can help to think of your body as a car engine: good, clean fuel helps it run best. So eat a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods and limit the amount of high-glucose, high-carbohydrate foods you eat. And take it easy on the booze.

“People have this erroneous thought that alcohol helps you relax, but it is actually a depressant,” Fogger says. “When people use it as a way to de-stress, they end up consuming more than they anticipate. This can get them into a vicious cycle of overdrinking — and then when they withdraw off alcohol, this increases stress on the body because the liver has to work overtime to neutralize toxins.”

If you want to indulge, Fogger says, don’t drink more than one glass of wine per day.

Finally, she says, keep it simple: Eliminate the things in your life that don’t match up with or help you achieve your life goals. And remember to surround yourself with good people.

“Mental health-wise, what helps people manage stress is having supportive people they can talk to,” Fogger says. “Every day should not be treated as life or death, and keeping it basic with good people around will keep your life purpose in focus and your stress levels down.”