When APA released the results of its 2010 Stress in America Survey, I was especially struck by the differences in women and men regarding stress.
Not only were women more likely than men (28 percent vs 20 percent) to report a great deal of stress, but married women, in particular, reported significantly more stress (63 percent) than single women (41 percent). Married women were also more likely than single women to report crying, irritability and fatigue and to resort to unhealthier ways to manage their stress like overeating.
Economy Hurting Women
One of the reasons married women may be more stressed is the downturn in the economy. Higher unemployment rates for men mean more women are now often the sole family wage earner. Many women are also at home coping with a spouse who has have been unemployed for the last two years. As the caretakers of their families’ needs, married women traditionally bear the brunt of their family’s pain and often struggle to “fix it” for everyone. Unfortunately, they often neglect their own needs in the process, leading to higher rates of depression, exhaustion and poor overall health, something I’ve been seeing more and more of in my practice.
The story of Kathy and Larry
One patient I’ll call “Kathy” (not her real name) never worked outside the home after having her three children. Her husband “Larry” (also not his real name) provided a good income from the manufacturing industry. Two years ago he was suddenly laid off after 25 years. Their story is a life lesson for us.
For the first time in their long-term marriage, Kathy had to work. She found it terrifying. The couple began fighting more, and Kathy became anxious and angry. When Kathy came to see me, she was not sleeping and had gained 20 pounds from late-night binge eating.
Although Kathy had not worked outside the home, she had many strengths and skills that she had gained raising three successful children and volunteering for the past 20 years, I told her. But in order to function decently, she needed to be able to sleep. Insomnia affects concentration and memory at work. But it’s also linked to late-night eating and weight gain. Kathy’s primary care physician prescribed a mild sleep aid, and I worked with her to lessen both her anxiety and her ruminating about her future.
We worked on dealing with the family’s money crisis, and she quickly found a job doing accounting work for a small business. I also referred Larry to a therapist.
A Positive Outcome
While Larry only managed to find part-time consulting work, he discovered he loves cooking. Kathy, on the other hand, was surprised to discover she loves working outside the home and was promoted at work. Most importantly, the couple learned to adapt to the changing economy and pulled closer together, rather than be pulled apart.
While marriage can be more stressful for women, it can also be a positive buffer against outside stress. Here’s what makes the difference:
- Determine what you can control (exercise, diet, dealing with anger) and what you cannot control (the economy, your partner’s personality).
- Reach out to good girlfriends and family for support–they are invaluable.
- Take care of your health and your stress–make that annual physical exam appointment.
- Focus on your strengths as a couple, not just your differences.
- Get professional help for communication problems quickly so you don’t drift apart.
- If your husband won’t go for couple therapy, get help for yourself.
Photo by Tom Poes via flickr.