UNDERSTANDING STRESS IN WOMAN
COVID-19 has spread panic throughout the world. We don’t have any idea, how much will we be impacted and when is this pandemic going to end. The uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the situation make it even more challenging and overwhelming. As we stare into the fear of contracting the disease, unemployment, dwindling economy, starvation, and alcoholism, another public health crisis is gearing up in the background silently, which could be more fatal than coronavirus. The social and economic meltdown will create an atmosphere of uncertainty and panic, which could become the perfect breeding ground for stress, anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours, morbidity, and suicide.
Everyone is having a hard time coping with this unprecedented situation. But the surprising fact is that there is a stark gender gap in how this unhappiness is distributed. Women are having a harder time than their male counterparts, juggling their career and family life.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural reaction of the body to any immediate threat or difficult situation. Stress response was honed as a homeostatic tool in our ancestors to make them more attentive towards a predator or impending danger. But nowadays, our challenges are emotional and psychological threats rather than physical ones, like a looming deadline or workplace competition. This may prove positive in some cases, by motivating us or sharpening our senses, but prolonged stress can have negative effects like increased heart rate, fluctuating blood pressure, rise in muscle tension, increased susceptibility to develop anxiety and depression which can deeply impact our health, mood, performance, and wellbeing.
Effects of stress on women
While stress can cause physical and psychological symptoms in both men and women alike, the intensity and reaction to stress has a strong relation to gender. Unlike men who have a “fight or flight reaction” to stress, with emotions ranging from rage, recklessness, and anger, women have a “tend and befriend” appxroach which is more apt for negotiating. The exact mechanism of this is not known, but the difference in brain and hormone levels is a possible cause of these exclusive reactions in women. The stress hormones produced in men are cortisol and adrenaline, whilst in women, in addition to these two, oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding, is secreted. This causes women to seek social support and try to reason out why they are feeling stressed, while men tend to withdraw socially and exhibit signs of rage and anger.
But why do women get more easily stressed out than men?? The limbic system, the part of the brain which is associated with emotions and memories is highly active in women, which makes it difficult for them to forget painful experiences and let go of things. Women tend to ruminate over the issue rather than trying to get over it. This builds up negative emotions that increase stress.
Women in modern times have to face multiple responsibilities and challenges at home, society, and workplaces, and if all these accumulate, it becomes a bit difficult to manage. They tend to deal with these things more emotionally, which may deter their focus, again causing stress.
Women find it harder to say no to requests, even though that means they will have to sacrifice time to nurture their own emotional and physical needs. Too many responsibilities may make women feel overwhelmed with a profound effect on mental health.
Hormonal changes associated with pre-menstrual, pregnancy, post-partum, and menopause also increase their vulnerability to developing stress, anxiety, and depression.
The effects on women may range from headaches to menstrual irregularities to back pain.
- Stress can create hormonal imbalances that can lead to missed, late, or irregular periods. This can make it difficult for women to conceive.
- Stress greatly impacts the digestive system, leading to the development of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and ulcers.
- Women who have chronic stress are twice as likely to experience depression than men.
- Stress is a common cause of insomnia.
- High levels of stress lead to increases levels of cortisol, which can cause decreased libido, acne breakouts, hair loss, and weight gain due to stress eating.
- Women under stress are 40% more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke.
- Stress shrinks the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory, making it hard to remember things.
- Stress causes muscles to tense up as a response to stress hormones, which can amplify pain and result in frequent headaches, dysmenorrhea, or back pain.
- Women are more likely than men to rely on drugs or other habit-forming substances as a coping mechanism against stress.
The effect of COVID-19 on women
The already challenging life of women is now in a state of turmoil since the coronavirus scare and lockdown. Due to the worry that someone in the family might get affected by COVID-19, along with added responsibilities owing to lockdown, many women find it overwhelming to manage work and family together.
- The amount of household work that women do has increased as families are stuck at home and domestic help is not available due to lockdown. Whether working or a homemaker, its women who do a major chunk of the domestic work. Managing both professional and family life becomes challenging, leaving them overwhelmed and less satisfied by their quality of work.
- The financial crisis means more women can lose their jobs or pay cuts and the fear of losing financial independence or reduced income can be worrying for some women. Other women might voluntarily give up work, as all the responsibilities might become too much for them to handle.
- As schools are closed, women are more likely to take on the added responsibility of childcare and educating the kids, which becomes a daunting task. Mothers of children with special needs who need speech, occupational, and behavioural therapy might find it difficult to manage everything on their own.
- Women find less time to have leisure activities and self-care, which can act as a stress buster for them. They place the needs of the family before self, and ultimately, they start feeling emotionally drained out.
- Pregnant women are facing stress and anxiety owing to the concerns for themselves and their babies. Pregnancy itself is a stressful event for mothers due to the hormonal changes, and the current pandemic has made it more challenging, making women more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression.
- The quarantine can lead to a heightened risk of violence at home and it also cuts them off from social network and essential protection.
How women can deal with stress?
Everyone is stressed due to the current situation. Over lives have changed drastically in the past 6 months, and the truth is, we don’t know until when it will last. What we can do though is to find ways to deal with the stress. Not everything works for everyone, and you have to find ways and combinations to cope with the stress on your own. Men should be more supportive of the women in their lives, while women have to take the lead to start prioritising their needs and wellbeing for the better.
- Follow a routine. Proper sleep and timely regimen will help build a sense of normalcy and also help in plan things better.
- Pen down everything that worries you. Keep a journal documenting everyday feelings, and try to find out things that you can control and do something to manage it. Focus on things that are in your control and release what you can’t.
- Make a gratitude list every night, wherein you can write down things that you are grateful for. This helps maintain psychological resilience and induce positive thoughts.
- Include meditation and yoga in your daily routine. These practices take very little time, but they promote self-compassion and helps you manage your family better.
- This is a time of social distancing and not social isolation. Reconnect with supportive friends and family over the phone regularly and discuss what concerns and feelings you have. Or find a community group wherein you can speak and share about your experiences and listen to others.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet avoiding refined sugars and carbohydrates, along with proper exercise to keep you active. This also releases feel-good hormones that can combat stress naturally.
- Spend some time alone, and ask your partner to take care of household chores and kids for some time. Utilise this time to do things you love, leisure activities, or to simply relax.
- Stay away from listening or reading too much news about the pandemic. Check on updates from a reliable source only up to two times a day.
- Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking, or habit-forming substances to deal with stress. It may provide short time relief, but in the long run, it will do more harm than good.
- For women who are working from home, having a dedicated workspace is a good idea. Get dressed as you normally would for work, and catch up with colleagues for a coffee break on a video call. This will bring a sense of normalcy.
- Learn to say ‘no’. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is always ok to say ‘no’ to over responsibilities and commitments. Acknowledge your limitations and learn to prioritise yourself. These are not normal times.
- Men should start participating more in household chores and childcare so that women don’t feel overburdened. It should be the collective effort of the family to ensure that women are not encumbered with work and ultimately get stressed.
- If you have trouble coping with your situation or you are facing any kind of domestic violence, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help or call a helpline. Don’t suffer in silence.
Ayurvedic methods of coping with stress
A woman goes through several changes in her lifetime; menarche, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. In each of these stages, women face a variety of challenges and Ayurveda has always acknowledged and provided a supportive approach to these stages in the life of women. Modern-day women are under much more stress because of the added responsibilities in life and COVID-19 has brought this predicament into the limelight.
The two important steps which Ayurveda follows to tackle stress is to avoid stress-causing situations and to increase endurance towards stress. As in the current situation, avoiding the cause of stress is unavoidable, we have to focus on steps to improve our mental strength, through dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Ayurveda has elaborate discussions on a daily regimen to be followed according to season and health condition, which indicates how important is it to have a proper schedule in your life to attain good health. Including Ayurvedic methods like oil massage, exercise, gargling, will improve positivity.
- Make it a habit to do a full body massage with a suitable oil and then take bath. This will improve your circulation, calm your mind, and make you feel more energised.
- Practice Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation, which help you cope with accumulated stress and develop a positive outlook on life. Focussing on your breath will not only help to distract you from negative emotions about the pandemic, but it will also build up your coping mechanism and adaptive strength of mind. Yoga and meditation will help you to reconnect and understand the needs of your mind and body better, and improve the control over your negative thoughts.
- Intake of a well-balanced diet according to your prakriti or psycho-somatic condition will help improve your agni or digestive power and aid the production of healthy dhathus or tissue and better immunity.
- Pregnant women should opt for vata pacifying, sattvic, warm, oily and sweet food like ghee, nuts, dairy, and avoid bitter, dry, spicy, and pungent food items. That being said, Ayurveda encourages pregnant women to fulfil their cravings. Regular body or foot massage with suitable oil can ease tension and stress and reduces emotional turbulence.
These are tough times, and women around us are making sure to give in their best, to keep people around them satisfied, and happy. In the strive to excel in work, become the best homemaker and best mother, women fail to prioritize themselves. It is time for them to realize that its ok to pay little more attention to themselves, to take a pause and relax. Ask for help when you want and take out time to do what you love. If you feel overwhelmed or stressed, take action to tackle your problems before it starts affecting the lives around you. Women play a very important role in our society and family, and Ayurveda can guide women to rediscover their lost vibrant feminine energy to attain physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.