The Stressed-Out Woman’s Guide to Letting Go With Laughter

I Am Woman, Hear Me Freak Out

When it comes to stress, we women are funny. Studies have found that we DO indeed have more stress than men (we already knew that, thank you) and that we’re more aware of its effect on our lives. We’re also more likely than the guys to do something positive to get our stress under control.

The funny part is that despite the fact that we’re not above admitting we’re stressed out and trying occasionally to meditate or de-clutter or eat enough chocolate to make us forget what it was that was causing us to freak out in the first place, we’re also just as likely to say “yes to the stress.” It doesn’t even have to be our stress; we invite other people to dump theirs on us too – children, spouses, relatives, friends, coworkers, strangers we meet in the elevator, our pets, fictional characters on television and in movies… They don’t even have to ask us to do it for them; we just open our arms and embrace everyone’s problems. Don’t shake your head; you know I’m talking about you.

Are we crazy or what?

There are so many things that make us feel that our lives are out of control. For example:

• Juggling work and family. When we’re at work, we’re usually stressed-out about what’s going at home and vice-versa. It doesn’t help that these days no matter where we go, we’re connected to both work and family via cell phones, GPS, ankle bracelets, and other types of mobile technology. Those just give us more options for stressing out.

• Overactive imaginations. When was the last time you jumped to the worst possible conclusion when your kid was five minutes late coming home from school, a friend didn’t show up for lunch, or your spouse didn’t’ call when he was stuck at the office? Not that long ago, I bet. Unfortunately, our imaginations churn up more stress for us than real life does on its own. Because of the way women’s brains are structured, we are capable not only of worrying about many things simultaneously, we’re also totally up to the challenge of making up stuff to worry about at the same time. You go girl!

• Long memories. Typically women remember everything better than men do. That’s why in the middle of an argument about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher we can turn the conversation into a critique of what he wore on our wedding rehearsal dinner. Due to both our longer retention (and no, not water retention) and the fact that our memories are wrapped up tightly with a big emotional bow, we women find it harder to let go of negative feelings than the guys in our lives. They’re busy trying to recall their anniversary or the name of the new cat.

• The inability to say “No.” We women have difficulty with the N-word because of our desire to nurture, uh, well, everyone. (If you’re providing regular moral support to a prison pen pal, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) We feel that if we say “No,” we’re being less supportive than the ten-year-old bra we keep in the bottom of our underwear drawer because it’s comfy.

• Our nurturing tendencies. The word “nurture” is from the Greek and means “To worry on behalf of everyone.” Okay, that’s not true, but it should be. Taking care of everyone equals adding their problems to our list. Unlike many doctors who learn to provide care without getting too emotionally involved, most women can’t do that. We want to be there for the people who rely on us, and even when we are, we feel guilty about not doing enough for them. As a result, most of us often let our own needs go unmet because there is only so much time in the day. We’d lobby for longer days, but we just don’t have time!

• Our ability to “multi-task” better than men. I use quotation marks because studies have shown that no one can actually do two things simultaneously. What we women do better is switch back and forth between tasks more quickly than men. Our brains are designed to do that. Unfortunately, many of us feel that since we CAN handle many things almost at the same time, we SHOULD. Name a woman you know who doesn’t attempt to do at least three things at a time all the time, including during sex! Come on, I dare you.

• Hormones. Whether PMS, PMDD, menstruation, perimenopause, menopause, or post-menopause, the mood swings that accompany each of these, along with the physical changes that are part of the package, are usually more stressful for women than even the men who have to live with us. (Although I’ve learned that menopause may be where things start to even out!)

Men, of course, have their own unique stressors, including the fact that it is still less socially acceptable for them to express their emotions, which can make being stressed-out deadly. This may well be one of the reasons men don’t live as long as women do.

Women and men also typically deal with stress in much different ways. You are probably familiar with the phrase “fight or flight,” which refers to our body’s biological response to high levels of stress. When in “fight or flight,” we are prepared either to come to blows or to run away. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, neither of these options is usually helpful. Imagine challenging your boss to fisticuffs or running away from home every time the kids are too demanding. Imagining those things might actually help you manage your stress, but actually doing them will just make things worse.

Researchers at UCLA recently found that women typically respond to stress with an entirely different approach, one they have labeled, “tend and befriend.” This is not because we’re smarter than men and choose more effective ways of managing stress; it’s due to the hormone oxytocin. When something causes up to be stressed, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine raise our blood pressure and blood sugar levels, just like in men. Cortisol also weakens our immune system. But in women, high doses of oxytocin are released from our brains, and that hormone promotes nurturing and relaxation. Men also secrete oxytocin, but in much smaller amounts.

“Tend and befriend” is a much better way to handle stress, especially since the Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Health Study showed that having close friends and confidants to whom you can turn in difficult times is as important to good health as not smoking and exercising. The fact that we women gravitate towards our friends when we’re stressed may be one of the main reasons we laugh more than men do. That’s right; in the U.S. women laugh approximately 126% as often as men, according to one study. Other reasons we laugh more include the fact that we’re more emotionally expressive, we’re more communicative, and we’re more nurturing (which translates into we to be supportive even when we don’t think something is funny.)