By Elaine Herscher
Ask any woman, especially one with children and a mortgage, and you're likely to get an earful on stress.
In fact, studies show consistently that women score higher on the stress-o-meter than do men. In a survey conducted in 2006 by the American Psychological Association (APA) fully 51 percent of women -- compared to 43 percent of men -- reported that stress had an impact on their lives.
Other research confirms the APA's findings. In one study of 2,816 people published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, women scored significantly higher than men in terms of chronic stress.
"Although there was no difference in the number of life events experienced in the previous two years, the women rated their life events as more negative and less controllable than the men," the study's author reported. "The results of this study suggest that women suffer more stress than men.... "
Women, according to the APA survey, tend to experience stress in the form of physical symptoms. They are more likely than men to report stress-related health problems such as hypertension, depression, anxiety, and obesity. However, men are by no means getting away free. Although more women see the doctor for stress-related ailments, more men die from them.
"The really interesting gender difference is that women... present for treatment more frequently and have a greater number of stress-related disorders than men, but men die more frequently of stress-related illnesses -- heart disease, cancer, and auto-immune disease," says Beverly Thorn, director of the doctoral training program in clinical psychology at the University of Alabama and a frequent spokeswoman for the APA.
The stress gap
If stress were breaking down along traditional gender lines, men would be expected to worry more about money and women more about the family. But surprisingly, 28 percent of women in the APA study called finances a "very significant" source of stress, compared to 19 percent of men.
Thorn said that was because the study of 2,152 adults deliberately over-sampled African Americans and Hispanics and picked up a higher than average sampling of single mothers.
"By far, African American women were the highest group concerned about stress," says Thorn. "Of course, being racial minorities and women, they're at a double disadvantage [for experiencing stress overload]."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression. A report by the NIMH in part blames "stress due to psychosocial factors, such as multiple roles in the home and at work, and the increased likelihood of women to be poor, at risk for violence and abuse and raising the children alone."
Women, the APA report said, identify children as "a much more significant source of stress" than male respondents do (24 percent of women, compared to 15 percent of men). As sociologist Arlie Hochschild reported in her book The Second Shift, it's common for women to put in a full day at work followed by a full night taking care of their families.
In addition, the role of "health care decision maker" has largely fallen to mothers, according to the APA survey, which found a whopping 73 percent of women identifying with that position in the family. Stress is higher in health care decision makers, whose activities may include everything from taking the kids to the doctor to caregiving for an elderly parent.
Thorn, whose area of expertise is the connection between chronic stressors and physical health, says she feels that role acutely even in her own family. On the day she was interviewed for this story, she had to dash off to take her 12-year-old son to the doctor. Thorn says her husband has procrastinated for two months in filling a prescription for himself. She figures she'll eventually have to pick up for him.
"It's very difficult with a very demanding career, managing child-rearing, and everything else," she says.
Weeping versus insomnia
Hans Selye, a pioneer in studying the influence of stress on the body, once said that it isn't stress itself but our reaction to it that's killing us.
Although there are always exceptions, the APA study and others found that women tend to respond to stressors with feelings of nervousness, wanting to cry, or lack of energy. Men, on the other hand, respond by having trouble sleeping and experiencing feelings of anger and irritability.
"Women under stress are more likely than men to report that they are in fair or poor health," the study noted. "Among those 'very concerned' about stress nearly half (46 percent) of women characterize their physical health as fair or poor...versus 29 percent of men."
Not surprisingly, given that more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, many who are very concerned about stress describe themselves as "comfort eaters." Stress levels are higher for both men and women who frequently eat fast food, and over-stressed Americans are likely to opt for unhealthy snacks. Stressed people of both sexes are also likely to smoke more and exercise less.
Many in the APA study who acknowledged they were under stress said they really weren't doing much about it. But no matter what your circumstance or your gender, Thorn has a prescription: Getting even a little bit of exercise can help reduce your stress, she says.
"We need to help people do more to manage stress," Thorn says, "and physical activity is an absolute must."
Interview with Dr. Beverly Thorn, director of the doctoral training program in clinical psychology at the University of Alabama.
American Psychological Association. Stress and Mind/Body Health. Report released February 23, 2006.
Matud, M. Pilar. Gender differences in stress and coping styles/ Personality and Individual Differences, Nov. 2004, Vol. 37, Issue 7, pages 1401-1415.
National Institute of Mental Health. Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Women and Mental Health Research. NIH Publication No. 01-4607, 2001.
Ogden, Cynthia L. "Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in the United States, 1999-2004," National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHAMES). Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), April 5, 2006 -- Vol. 295, No.13.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health. Statistics related to overweight and obesity.