health

Women are more prone to negative stress than men. Here's what you can do about it.

Stress levels were at an all-time high for me when we were confronted with my husband’s diagnosis of brain cancer

I still remember the day we learnt the news. We found out that my husband had a lump in his brain, but we didn’t find out from the doctor. 

We had opened the sealed report from his CT scan and Googled the words we didn’t know. Things started to move quickly as the cross-section CT scan was replaced with a fine section scan and an MRI, and the need to see a neurosurgeon to discuss the results and set a date for surgery.

Needless to say, I was more stressed than I’d ever been before.

Driving this stress was my need to support my husband with all he faced, including the expected outcome of his own death, likely within the next two years. 

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This meant ensuring that all the daily activities of a busy household with three children – aged five, three and two years at the time – happened as seamlessly as possible, at least as far as my husband was concerned.

I tried to shield him from the normal stresses of everyday life – paying bills, arranging childcare whilst I continued to work (now as the sole income earner), taking kids to school, to swimming, etc. On top of this, I was also preparing meals – we went totally organic at the time, juicing four times per day. I also needed to accompany him to doctors' appointments and cancer support groups, and be hands on with care when he was so sick from the side-effects of treatment that he could barely stand or walk.

Looking back, I recognise there was a benefit to all this activity. In some ways, it gave me a sense of structure at a time when there was none. I felt as though I had some control, something useful to do, a point of focus – something to hang on to.

Despite this, there were days where the stress really took its toll on me. I remember crying alone in the car or waking in the middle of the night thinking through funeral plans or wondering how I would manage the house. These thoughts would usually be followed by great waves of guilt as I admonished myself. He is still here, stop it.

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However, time has marched on and now 19 years later we find ourselves with my husband very much with us. Though I’m grateful every day, that stress is never too far away as new challenges present themselves and old demons are constantly raising their heads and getting his doctor's attention. As a result, we’re constantly entering and re-entering a space of hypervigilance.

Do I think my story is unique? Not at all. The experience is often the same for so many women I have had the pleasure of meeting through my work. The best way to explain how you navigate something like this is to imagine a point in time from which you never ever fully exhale again. You can’t, because if you do, you might just crumble and you’re not sure you’ll be able to recover. 

You need that spare breath to steady yourself for the next knock, the next appointment, the next loss of function that will come. You need that spare breath to support those around you who are too young, too distant, too shattered. To show them that you are okay, we are okay, he is okay.

Many women will be familiar with this feeling, but what is really happening here is something we know of as emotional labour. This is where we’re forced to work hard at modifying our thoughts and emotions so we can cope with something distressing. 

Instead of thinking the worst, telling yourself you can’t cope, feeling guilty for planning ahead, or feeling waves of sadness and anger, you bring yourself into check – telling yourself you will get through it, it will be okay. As a result, we’re able to cultivate a sense of calm, even if artificial, and are better placed to support those around us.

Is it the same for men? Often not. The reality is that women work harder in their emotional labour typically because they experience more everyday stressors than men – think family responsibilities, juggling finances, upskilling in their education and professional development, all on top of tending to the needs of their own relationships, and meeting the demands of work. 

The burden is rarely the same for men. In fact, this gender discrepancy was reflected in our Springfox's research during COVID-19, with women reporting twice the levels of stress, worry and anxiety of men and up to six times the level of loneliness.

And while most of us can recognise stress, we’re often less attuned to its by-products. Given the level of stress I was experiencing when my husband was sick, there was a possibility for it to begin to leak into my work life. We call this "spill over" and so, mindful of this, it’s likely I worked harder to manage my emotions both at work and at home. 

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For many women during COVID-19, it has been the pressures of work, the uncertainty of job security, reduced hours resulting in reduced income, and a downward pressure on financial security that has given way to high levels of stress, with the impact felt at home and in relationships.

Unfortunately, our actions and emotions in response to stress also have the ability to impact those around us – we call this "crossover". This is where our own feelings of stress, worry and anxiety are felt by our partners and children, the people we love.

The good news in all this is that there are things we can do to better manage negative stress, which in turn will lessen the amount of emotional labour we need to perform and help us avoid spill over and crossover. 

Our global research clearly illustrates that building resilience supports mental health and improves well-being. In a review of some 21,239 participant resilience scores post-program, there was on average a 32 per cent reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms, a 37 per cent reduction in worry, and a 33 per cent reduction in stress. 

These findings continue to support the message that self-care is not selfish but, quite the opposite, it is imperative for your own well-being and the well-being of the people and relationships around you.

But what does improving resilience look like? Looking back on my own experiences, I believe it begins with recognising the importance of creating space for self-awareness. We need to be willing and able to check in with ourselves and ask ourselves, honestly, 'How am I going?'

Self-care is the next step here. In times of crisis, many women would balk at the notion of running a bath, getting a massage, or even taking a solo walk when there are things to be done and others to care for. But as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and constantly denying your own needs will only weaken you mentally, emotionally and physically.

Not long after my husband became sick, I started Taekwondo and absolutely loved it. There was something very cathartic about punching and kicking a bag to release the anger, frustration, sadness, self-doubt, grief and all those other feelings that sat just below the surface, weighing me down. I used to spell out 'cancer' in my head with each kick and punch – that always felt good.

Eating well and prioritising sleep was equally vital for me, particularly if I knew I had a long or emotionally taxing day ahead of me. But of course, none of these practices could replace having a trusted person to speak to, and sometimes it helps if this person is not someone you know all that well. You’re not looking to be 'fixed', but rather to have the opportunity to talk about what’s going on so you can take the balcony view and see things with a different perspective. Having a little distance in this relationship means you can speak freely without fear of saying the wrong thing or upsetting someone because they too are closely connected to what is happening.

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I also found it helpful to try, as difficult as it often was, to focus on the positive and to finish each day by answering a few key questions:

  • What was the best bit of today?
  • Who do I need to thank?
  • What was my act of kindness to others and myself?
  • What am I looking forward to?

The ability to build authentic positive emotions meant I was more likely to spiral upward rather than downward, and in answering these questions, I was able to find a sense of hope for the next day.

In looking back on that period of my life, now almost 20 years ago, I’m reminded of the quote my grandmother often reiterated to me: This too shall pass. And it always does. Women truly are amazing and can always handle more than we give ourselves credit for. It never ceases to surprise me how often we underplay our own experiences as nothing special; we often listen, in awe, to someone else’s story, thinking "I could never do that," yet the opposite is so often true.

Peta Sigley is the co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer at Springfox. Over the last decade, Peta has put her own resilience to the test supporting her chronically ill partner whilst maintaining her career and family cohesion. Peta demonstrates her mastery of the topic of resilience as a speaker, facilitator and coach. You can find more from Peta on her podcast series,  Resilience Real-Time.

Feature Image: Getty.

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