Holiday Cheer Means Stress For Women
by Jennifer Wider, MD
(Washington DC, 12/18/03): Women may be more susceptible to stress-related
illnesses like depression and anxiety due to cyclical changes in their bodies'
estrogen levels, according to a new study in the December 2003 issue of Molecular
Psychiatry. The findings of this study have strong implications for women particularly
during the holiday season when stress levels seem to increase.
Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., led
by graduate student Rebecca M. Shansky, conducted a study to determine why stress-related
disorders are more prevalent in women. The results suggest that estrogen may
amplify the stress response in a certain part of the brain, making women more
susceptible to these disorders.
"It's really important that these data are not interpreted to mean that
women can't handle stress," cautions Shansky. "We know that
there are gender discrepancies in stress-related disorders, and this research
asks what the biology behind those statistics might be."
Depression peaks during the holiday season, afflicting more than seventeen
million Americans, according to the National Mental Health Association. Women
bear a greater burden, according to a study by Pacific Health Laboratories,
which found that 44 percent of American women report feeling sad through the
holidays compared to 34 percent of American men.
Depression of any kind is more common in females than males," explains
Greg Murray, M.D., lecturer and clinical psychologist at Swinburne University
of Technology in Australia. "A pattern of elevated depression in the winter
months is more marked in women than in men."
Women appear to be more vulnerable to stress-related illnesses for several
reasons. The Women's Complete Healthbook, published by the American Medical
Women's Association (AMWA), explains that women are socialized to be caretakers.
They are expected to assume responsibilities that men might not consider. During
the holidays, when entertaining and visiting with extended families are custom,
women often take on most of the added workload.
Another possible explanation is that women often have a difficult time saying
no. According to the AMWA publication, "if you can't say no, the stress
you feel can be doubly disastrous because you don't see any escape." As
responsibilities mount during the holidays, women who don't establish boundaries
will have little time for themselves to alleviate built up stress.
Holiday season or not, women are encountering more stress at every life stage
than ever before. Balancing a job, family, education, child and elder-care,
and money issues add up to little time individual time. Whether married or single,
working mothers face higher stress levels in the workplace and at home, according
to the AMWA.
"People who notice that their mood is worse in the winter should recognize
that it may be harder for them to undertake activities that keep them happy
at other times of the year," Murray said. "The most important of these
are probably exercise and socializing.
The findings of recent studies may be able to shed some light on why women
are more likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses: "If we can identify
the mechanisms that underlie these gender differences, we might be able to develop
better treatment strategies for women who suffer from mental illnesses like
depression," Shansky said.
For more information on depression, click here.
The Society for Women's
Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization
whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded
in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate
inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need
for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates
increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex
differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease,
and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica
Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its
Board of Directors.
Created: 12/18/2003  - Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 12/19/2003  - Donnica Moore, M.D.