Feeling a tug at your heart strings? It might be more than love, experts say. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, heart disease is the number one cause of death among women in the United States. While many factors, such as diet, physical activity and genetics contribute to the onset of heart disease in women, stress plays a more significant role than any leading man.
According to the American Psychological Association's 2010 Stress in America survey, women report experiencing higher levels of stress than men: 28 percent of women report having a great deal of stress — eight, nine or 10 on a 10 point scale—compared to only 20 percent of men. Furthermore, women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache (41 percent versus 30 percent), having felt as though they could cry (44 percent versus 15 percent) or having had an upset stomach or indigestion (32 percent versus 21 percent) in the past month. In regard to the economy, 79 percent of women cited money as a significant source of stress and 68 percent cited the state of our national economy (73 percent and 61 percent for men, respectively).
“The link between high levels of stress and heart disease is well-known and very real,” says Katherine Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association. “The good news is that by being proactive in their health care decisions and making healthy lifestyle choices women can successfully manage their levels of stress and minimize their risk of heart disease.”
In fact, the tools used to prevent stress are also those often employed to prevent heart disease. A healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as well as regular physical activity, such as walking, yoga or dance, all contribute to a healthy mind and body. Putting down that chocolate bar and turning off that romantic comedy may be the best thing you can do for yourself and your heart.
APA offers the following tips on how to manage your stress:
Understand how you experience stress. Everyone experiences stress differently. How do you know when you are stressed? How are your thoughts or behaviors different from times when you do not feel stressed?
Identify your sources of stress. What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to your children, family, health, financial decisions, work, relationships or something else? Is there anything you can do to change the situation or reduce your stress?
Learn your own stress signals. People experience stress in different ways. You may have a hard time concentrating or making decisions, feel angry, irritable or out of control, or experience headaches, muscle tension or a lack of energy. Gauge your stress signals.
Recognize how you deal with stress. Determine if you are using unhealthy behaviors (such as smoking, drinking alcohol and over/under eating) to cope. Is this a routine behavior, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices as a result of feeling rushed and overwhelmed?
Find healthy ways to manage stress. Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities such as meditation, exercising or talking things over with friends or family. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviors develop over time and can be difficult to change. Don't take on too much at once. Focus on changing only one behavior at a time.
Take care of yourself. Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and engage in regular physical activity. Ensure you have a healthy mind and body through activities like yoga, taking a short walk, going to the gym or playing sports that will enhance both your physical and mental health. Take regular vacations or other breaks from work. Women often take on too many responsibilities. No matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself — even if it's just simple things like reading a good book or listening to your favorite music.
Reach out for support. Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist, who can help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behaviors.