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Chronic Stress and Women’s Health: How Stress Affects the Body

Since 1924, the American Heart Association has been fighting heart disease and stroke and helping people to live longer, healthier lives. Our local AHA shares ways that you can stay healthy, get involved and help raise awareness right here in NEPA.

Feeling Stressed Out? It Can Have Lasting Effects on Your Health and Well-Being.

A 2017 American Psychological Association survey found that a whopping 71% of respondents reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress over the past month. And stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse – one in two U.S. adults reports that COVID-19 has negatively impacted mental health.

Adapting to stress is important because chronic, unmanaged stress can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. These health effects impact some groups disproportionately – women, for example, are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to men.

During trying times, women may be less likely to prioritize their own mental and physical health. Men and women experience some of the same effects of stress, such as trouble sleeping and weaker immune systems. But research suggests that women may feel other effects of stress differently than men.

Stress in women is linked to:

  • Heart problems: High stress levels can raise blood pressure and heart rate, leading to serious medical problems, such as stroke and heart attack. The negative effects of stress may be greater for women younger than age 50 with a history of heart problems.
  • Headaches and migraines: Tension-type headaches are common in women and can be associated with other body aches and pains.
  • Stomach conditions: Short-term stress can cause diarrhea or vomiting. Long-term stress can cause irritable bowel syndrome, a condition twice as common in women than in men. Stress can worsen gas and bloating.
  • Obesity: Women are more at risk for stress-related weight gain than men.
  • Pregnancy difficulties: Higher stress levels increase the likelihood of having problems getting pregnant. Not being able to get pregnant is also a source of stress.
  • Menstrual cycle issues: Chronic or long-term stress may lead to more severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or irregular periods.

Empowering women to prioritize their mental health and removing barriers to their care is essential. Women should reach out to a health care professional if stress has become too much to handle alone. Using coping techniques such as smoking or overeating are unhealthy ways to deal with stress.

Healthy daily habits can improve how the body manages stress. Some of these include:

  • Exercise: Regular physical activity improves mood, energy and sleep quality.
  • Eat well: Avoid caffeine, sugar and fatty foods. Opt for nutritious, well-balanced meals.
  • Recharge: Step away from to-do lists and turn off the news. Pursue healthy hobbies and prioritize health.
  • Connect: Seek support from family, friends and social groups.
  • Sleep better: Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep nightly.
  • Meditate: Research shows that meditation can help lower stress. It also may help improve anxiety and lower blood pressure.

Learn more about how stress can affect your overall well-being and healthy ways to cope with stress at heart.org/Stress.

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