We've Come a Long Way, but Are Our Successes Killing Us?

Women are suffering the brunt of stress more than ever before

Posted Mar 16, 2012

Amazing and ambitious women have been around since the beginning of human history. However, because of rigid social ideology and expectations that lasted well into the mid-twentieth century, most women didn't have opportunities to rise up and shine as we do today.

During World War II, many job opportunities opened up for women, but when the war ended, most of these opportunities ended as well. Those who did work outside of the home found few opportunities other than the low paying jobs traditionally viewed as "women's work," such as nursing, teaching, sewing, and retail sales. However, if nothing else, this period in history offered not only the world, but women themselves a glimpse into the future, a foreshadowing of the versatility, industriousness, and talent women would one day use in their race to overcome a barrage of man-made obstacles and climb to the top in a broad range of fields such as law, medicine, politics, and entertainment.

That "day" certainly did not come quickly or easily. After the war, society and the government placed enormous pressure on women through intensive ad campaigns to return to their "places" in the home, supporting their husbands and raising their children. Images of Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, and the picture-perfect aproned housewife were heavily used to quell female ambition and keep high-achieving women confined to their homes. But society was changing.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement gained momentum in the 1960s. In 1961, President Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a powerful critique on the subjugation of women, which gave a voice to women dissatisfied with the rigid role restrictions placed upon them by society. That same year, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for the same work. In 1964, discrimination based on race and sex was barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the 1970s, bans on education discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and credit discrimination were passed. The end of the century brought even more progress, rallying well-deserved attention to the issues of sexual harassment and violence against women. And although more progress is still needed, women have made amazing strides.

Today, there isn't a job anywhere in the world that hasn't been held by a woman. Each day, more and more women are clearing that proverbial glass ceiling and rising to positions that many would have not believed possible only a few decades ago. Although men still dominate many of the most powerful positions in business and politics, women are closing the gap.

Forty years ago, women accounted for only a third of all workers in the United States. Today, for the first time in history, women make up approximately half of the workforce. In addition, female business owners represent one of the today's fastest growing markets. According to a Time magazine poll, there are now 3.3 million married couples in which the wife is the sole breadwinner, which is 2.4 million more than in 1970. In the same poll, 40 percent of women reported that they were the primary breadwinners in their households.And there is even more promise on the horizon.

Compared to the 1970's, when only about 10 percent of law students were female, today the percentage has risen to almost half. The same holds true for the medical profession. And on college campuses, what not too long ago was a 60:40 male-to-female ratio has now reversed with 60 percent of college students being female. Clearly, these and countless other milestones attest to the fact that more than ever before, women are breaking through gender barriers and rising to heights never before seen.

Good news? Absolutely! However, the advancement of women in society and the workplace is very much a double-edged sword. While high-achieving women are blazing trails to the top of the mountain, little attention is being paid to the perilous terrain that comes with the territory and its negative impact on women's health and well-being. As Dana, a physician told me, "If I had known when I entered medical school that my success story would have a prescription for Xanax and Prozac in the footnotes, I'm not sure I'd have taken that road." Unfortunately, she's not alone.

The latest research on women's subjective well-being shows that although, by most objective measures, women's life circumstances have improved greatly over the past few decades, our happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. Interestingly, these findings hold true across all categories—married and divorced women, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, old and young, and across all educational levels. While the answers aren't clear as to exactly why women are less happy than ever before, we can no longer afford to ignore the impact of multiple and ever-increasing responsibilities (at home and/or work) and the stress that accompanies these responsibilities in women's lives.

Burnout rates among female workers are on the rise. And living through the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression certainly hasn't improved the situation. In fact, its repercussions are causing tsunamis for countless high-achieving women and their families throughout the world. Financial problems have always been ranked high among life stressors not only because they affect the bottom line, but because they often cause ripple effects that can result in major lifestyle changes, such as relocation, longer work hours, or the need to get a second or third job. In addition, financial problems tend to cause increased conflict and tension in relationships. All of these "ripples" can have a profound impact on our stress levels and our health.

According to a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association, women are not only reporting more stress than men over finances and the economy, they're also experiencing more stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, and depression. In fact, in all categories polled—money, the economy, job stability, housing costs, and health problems affecting their families—women reported feeling more stress than men.

In addition, a study conducted by the Center for Work Life Policy found that although men and women both feel stressed at work, women disproportionately feel stress related to their families' well-being. Why? Because they see a direct link between the time they spend at work and the negative effects on their families (e.g., more junk food, more time in front of a TV, less parental supervision) whereas men tend to blame external factors (e.g., "society," television violence, bad peer groups). And as more women become "breadwinners," these stress levels are likely to increase.

What does all this mean for high-achieving women in today's world? It means that although we've come a long way and should be proudly celebrating an amazingly successful journey, we have to be careful to not let our successes kill us (literally and figuratively). We need to be cognizant of the fact that being a high-achieving woman puts us squarely in the line of fire for stress and stress-related illnesses, especially in these troubled economic times.

High stress levels are associated with greater risks for depression, anxiety, and other types of emotional problems, as well as serious diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. High stress levels also increase the risk for family conflict, domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, and psychological problems for children in the family.

So what can be done? The first step to solving any problem is awareness that there is a problem. Many women today are so busy keeping their heads above water that they don't see Niagara Falls ahead of them. But knowledge is power. Once we become aware of the dangers that lie ahead, we have the opportunity to plan and prepare for them, and the good news is that the remedies don't have to strain your bank account.  

Here are a few strategies that you can use to mitigate stress without breaking the bank. 

1) Stay positive. I know this can be difficult during stressful times, but the alternative is to fall prey to the trap of negativity, which brings everything down instead of up. So how do you make the switch from negative to positive thinking? For some, it's going to require concerted effort and a lot of hard work, but one way to get started is to focus on what you do have, whatever that may be—good health, a supportive family, loving children, or something else that is working for you. Another way is to reframe tough times not as a threat, but as a challenge and an opportunity.

2) If you're employed, talk to your boss about the possibility of adding some flexibility to your work schedule to reduce the stress and guilt you may be feeling over your family and home responsibilities. Of course, some of you may be thinking that in this economy, it's not the best time to do this, but for many workers and employers, it actually may be. More and more employers are implementing flex schedules. Why? Because flexible work environments have been found to not only reduce the stress of employees, they also help companies retain talented employees, create greater loyalty, improve employee satisfaction, and therefore are more profitable for the business.

3) Avoid negativity in your environment as much as possible. When people feel down or are worried, they're often drawn to the negative. Some actually become obsessed with it. But it serves no purpose other than to add to your stress level. Here are some ways to avoid it: 

  • Avoid negative news articles and programming. I'm not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and not keep up with current events. But do you really need to watch every news program that airs between 5 pm and 11 pm? Spend that time doing activities that reduce your stress rather than add to it.
  • Avoid people who are miserable, who bring you down, or who always talk about negative things. Instead, as much as possible, surround yourself with people who make you smile and laugh.

4) Discover (or rediscover) at least three low-cost or free, readily available activities that relax you, and then make sure that you schedule time for at least one of these activities in your planner each day. Some require more time than others, but these are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Read a book that you check out from the public library, or reread a good book that you already own. (If you use public transportation to get around, use this time to read instead of making phone calls or using your electronic gadets to work.)
  • Watch a comedy that you borrow from the library, from a friend or relative, or that you pre-record from the television.
  • Pull out a board game that you own and play it with your partner and/or children. Puzzles work, too. If your time is limited, play for as long as you can and return to the game or puzzle when you can.
  • Listen to music. (You can do this during your travel time to and from work instead of making phone calls.)
  • Use free public facilities, such as parks, beaches, and libraries, to get away from stress.
  • Add a few drops of lavender oil to a warm bath, even if it is a short one, or put a few drops on your pillow to help you sleep. Lavender oil is a natural stress reducer. Drop for drop, it's not that expensive, and it's certainly worth the cost to gain its calming and soothing effects.

5) When you're at work, use what I call quick fixes to relieve stress. Quick fixes are mini stress reducers that help take the edge off when you're feeling stressed, but you don't have a lot of time to do much about it. Here are a few you can try:

  • Step outside for a few minutes (literally) to clear your head.
  • Open a window and breathe in some fresh air.
  • Close your eyes for a minute or two and imagine yourself in a calm, relaxing place.
  • Put a few drops of lavender oil on a tissue and breathe in its scent.
  • Focus on your breathing, taking deep breaths through your mouth and slowly letting the breath out.

None of these things take more than a few minutes, but they can help reduce the stress when you're feeling overloaded.

6) Avoid false stress reducers, such as alcohol and overeating. They increase stress and depression, and they interfere with restful sleep. Also avoid caffeinated drinks (caffeine can increase stress). Drink water instead (with lemon if you need some flavor).

7) Throw a potluck dinner. Not only will it save you money, it will give you a chance to reconnect with friends. One of the first things that go in an overstressed life is spending time with friends.

8) Eat, sleep, and exercise. Yes, I know! You have no time for these things, but even a little is better than none at all. Consider these suggestions:

  • Don't skip meals. Even if you only take five, ten, or fifteen minutes to eat, you should eat something (grapes and bananas are quick and easy to eat snacks that are also healthy). Food and water are the fuel that keeps us going. Without this fuel, your energy supply becomes depleted. When your energy is depleted, you're less productive and you get less done. When you get less done, your stress level rises. It becomes a vicious cycle.
  • It's hard to find time to sleep when you're working 60 or 80 hours a week, but the more sleep you can steal, the more productive you will be and the less stressed you will feel.
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Walk to a coworker's office instead of calling on the intercom. If possible, walk or bike to work instead of driving. If you have a long drive, move to the beat of the music in your car. Who cares who's looking? You'll probably never see those people again anyway.

9) Laugh as often and as much as you can. Here's why:

  • Laughter doesn't cost anything.
  • Laughter exercises your stomach and shoulder muscles and leaves them more relaxed after a good laugh.
  • Laughter causes the release of health-enhancing hormones and reduces the level of stress hormones in your body.
  • Laughter distracts you from the negative.

By the way, laughter has these effects even if you fake it so fake away! (See The Natural High of Laughter.)

10) Unplug. Even if it's for a short time each day, turn off your gadgets and spend some quiet time with yourself. Solitude can be a great stress reliever. (See 6 Reasons You Should Spend more Time Alone)

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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