When Stress Makes You Sick

Women who try to do it all can harm their health. Learn how you can take control of your life.


Jody Seidler's relentless schedule has started taking a toll on her body. A 43-year-old single mother, she has a demanding job at a Southern California movie studio. At home, she finds it impossible to relax because "things will fall apart."

Lately, Jody has suffered from stomachaches and recurring headaches. She also has trouble sleeping. "Stress has, unfortunately, become a way of life," she says. "I want to live long, but I fear all the stress is going to create an illness later on."

Real Damage. Jody's fears are not exagerated. Stress seems to be related to a wide variety of illnesses. Studies have linked stress to a weaked immune system, the body's defense against infection.

Dr. Ronald Glaser, a virologist at Ohio State University, and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist there, have shown that women who care for spouses with Alzheimer's disease generally have a weakened immune system. When inoculated with a flu vaccine, they have a much poorer immune response compared to other women their age.

Stress affects us in many ways, some of which science is just beginning to understand, says Dr. Glaser. Susceptibility to colds or infections may be related to the pressure in one's life. He also suspects that stress may play a role in some cancers and autoimmune disease.

Dr. Redford Williams, a behavioral medicine expert at Duke University Medical Center, paints an even stronger connection between stress and poor health. "What stress does, in all different forms, is lower resistance to all pathogens," he says, leaving people more vulnerable to infections and even cancer. Studies have also shown that people with high cholesterol who lead high-pressure lives are more likely to develop arteriosclerosis, a dangerous thickening of the arterial wall.

Stress Discriminates. Who typically gets hit the hardest by stress? "It falls mainly on the women," says Dr. Williams. Working mothers have a physical response to this daily grind, Dr. Williams says. Their level of cortisol -- a hormone secreted in response to stress -- is higher than in working women with no children at home. Excess cortisol is unhealthy because it suppresses the immune system. It also causes cholesterol and blood pressure to rise, and stays elevated even during sleep.

Men, on the other hand, fare much better. In fact, two additional biochemical stress markers, known as epinephrine and norepinephrine, plummet in their bodies once they walk in the house after a hard day at the office, Dr. Williams says.

"When women return home at the end of the day they do not do the same kind of unwinding that we see in men," adds Margaret Chesney, a stress researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. "It's very clear that women do not unwind. They are the manager. And everyone knows mom is going to do it in the end."

Stress is a normal and expected part of life. Most of us adapt to stress, at least most of the time. This series of questions can help you decide whether stress has overtaken your ability to handle it in a healthful way.

Do you:

  • Wake up feeling exhausted?
  • Lean angrily on your car's horn when stuck in traffic?
  • Bark at airline personnel when a flight is delayed?
  • Dread holidays and other events that are usually pleasurable?
  • Forget things?
  • Fly off the handle with little or no provocation?
  • Have no time to do daily chores you used to have time for?
  • Feel depressed or run-down at the end of the day?
  • Suffer regular headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, muscle aches, or digestive troubles?

The more of these questions you answer "Yes" to, the more likely that stress is injuring your health. Consider the changes you can make in your life. Or see a doctor or therapist about sound ways to cope with stress.

There are ways to put a lid on stress. Here's what the experts suggest:

  • Divide chores equally. It's essential that dual-income couples share household tasks, according to Dr. Williams, who says this doesn't mean the woman simply decides what needs to be done and hopes her partner pitches in. Each must anticipate chores and complete them within an agreed-upon time frame. He and his wife Virginia have written a new book called Lifeskills, which outlines ways working moms and others can negotiate to reduce demands in their lives.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself. Don't feel guilty if you can't relax, says Dr. Sternberg. Some people are simply more anxious than others. You may be one of them. However, psychotherapy and other types of behavior modification may help lower your stress setting a bit. Also, don't expect to be completely stress free. We've all heard the saying, "A little stress may be good for you." As it turns out, this may be true. Stress hormones, in small doses, stimulate the brain and come in handy when we need to think on our feet, such as when we must make an important speech.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise helps take the edge off, says Dr. Sternberg. Sporadic exercise isn't beneficial, and may be risky for people with health problems.
  • Talk it over. A therapist can help you break down problems, so you can attack them separately and gain a sense of control. "You perceive something as stressful when you can't control it," says Dr. Sternberg. "If you feel you can control it, and have some way of regulating it, then it seems less stressful. Also, some people may benefit from antidepressant drugs, which correct certain biochemical imbalances and reset the way your brain responds to stress.
  • Lean on others. A sympathetic ear can lighten the load. "Seek support from family and friends during difficult times," urges psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. You may have to make your needs known, she says. Jody Seidler shares her problems with a close friend, whom she sees once a week. She also started a support group for single parents. Hearing about other people's struggles makes her own troubles seem less intense and she felt better. "Once I started sharing with other people, I realized everyone was stressed."
  • Meditate. There's good evidence that meditation and relaxation exercises are physically and psychologically soothing, according to Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser.
  • Simplify your life. Dr. Chesney thinks many of us are caught in a time crunch. The solution -- set priorities. Decide what needs to be done, and then delegate or delete the rest. "Quality time with your kids is really important," she says. "Whether the cookies for your child's class are really homemade is not such a big deal."
  • Lobby for family-friendly policies. Work and family life often collide, but try to look for ways to reduce the pressure. For instance, you may be able to work through lunch in exchange for leaving earlier in the day, or compress a 40-hour schedule into four days. Helen and Tom Heydeman of Salinas, California, have found a way to make things work. Helen takes lunch at 2 p.m. so she can pick up their 7-year-old son, Matthew, from school and drive him to an after-school program. Tom picks Matthew up on his way home. Tom, who works 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., is home by 3:30 p.m. to spend the afternoon with Matthew.
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