A new mom desperately rocking a wailing baby who won’t sleep. A tired working woman sitting in her new office after her fourth corporate job leap. A female student holed up in a library, pouring over notes and books for her upcoming exams. A woman back in her childhood bedroom, unemployed and desperately wondering what her next move will be.
Close your eyes. How old do you imagine each woman?
No need to come up with more than one age—they’re all the same age. Each situation could apply to the same 35 year old woman. With shifting job markets, changing marital attitudes, and later family planning, the only thing younger women can rely on today is that there is nothing you can rely on. Everything is up for change and reinvention—including themselves!
And that can only lead to one commonality: stress.
Although every generation could point to major sources of stress, for this generation, there truly seems to be a perfect storm of social and economic pressures that’s increasing stress levels amongst younger women. According to the Population Reference Bureau, anxiety rates among young women are on the rise with one of its indicators being the suicide rate. There has been a recent spike in numbers, especially amongst younger women. And although there is no way to point to one definitive cause of rising suicide rates, we can see a continuous flow of recent research pointing a whole host of possible factors as to why such numbers might be on the rise.
Research has found women in their late twenties and thirties are economically stagnating. Even in the high paying professions found within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers, women are finding roadblocks to their earning potential. And with the millennial generation now lacking any kind of permanency even in corporate careers, they have the added stressor of constantly jumping from one company to another. Or perhaps being forced to completely change careers, starting all over again in a whole new field! It is the age of the hustle where constant movement is necessary to stay afloat. Stanford business professor and author, Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that people can often underestimate the stress of being a freelancer or entrepreneur in the “gig economy.” He’s found a tremendous amount of data that suggests when people aren’t sure what their schedules are going to be from one minute to the next, that’s a significant source of stress. Compound that with never knowing how much or how often you’ll be bringing in money and the stress only rises.
Add to this the shifting attitudes towards relationships and marriage and women are constantly pioneering new lifestyles for themselves, whether through later marriages or never marrying. But these new ideas are still butting against the old and women often find themselves stressed by the pressures to either marry or have children, regardless of whether they want to or not.
When you see the scope of pressures and stressors placed on younger women today, it is no wonder that stress is on the rise. But with stress being so prevalent and so common place, it is easy for women to assume that it is normal, safe even. Older generations might even be guilty of being dismissive of the struggles of their younger counterparts, enforcing the idea that stress is normal and bearable. But there is danger in being too dismissive of stress.
Stress affects all aspects of the body—the physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Stress can often be detected first through physical symptoms. Exhaustion, migraines, and lack of sleep is common when stressed. Body aches are also very common along with depressed immune systems. In fact, there is now data coming in on the rise of cardiovascular problems, namely heart disease and even heart attacks, amongst younger women. Doctors have reported a significant rise in heart disease in women between the ages of 29 and 45 and stress is cited as a major contributor to this rise.
Stress can also affect your body at a chemical level. It is measurable. When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands and affects many different functions in the body. Normal levels of cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, and help reduce inflammation. In women, it helps support the developing fetus during pregnancy. But high cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time can negatively affect a woman’s libido and menstrual cycle, with periods coming less frequently or stopping altogether. There have also been long-standing associations between raised levels of cortisol and a number of psychiatric conditions such as depression or anxiety. And when one hormone spikes, it can throw the others (such as estrogen) out of whack. Low levels of estrogen, for example, can cause headaches, depression, or fatigue. You can see how many of the symptoms of stress overlap and can be exacerbated.
Stress is also a mental drain. It is not uncommon at all to be constantly busy but unable to focus on anything. Your body and brain are overwhelmed and are having trouble taking in new data. Research has shown the impact stress plays on memory. Short term memory is greatly affected when the brain is under stress.
Depression and anxiety is known to walk hand in hand with stress. Many researchers are now beginning to recognize anxiety and depression happening at an earlier and earlier age and is particularly high within the subgroup of young women. When you haven’t been sleeping or concentrating well, it is easy to slip into a depression. And our moods are some of the hardest things to control because they feel so ambiguous and changeable. But they’re also crucial to our well-being. Having a healthy and positive mindset can often be the starting domino to wellness.
So we’ve seen all the ways in which stress can affect us. But what can we do about it?
Some of the options are quite basic and seem almost too obvious. Just as stress can physically affect us, so too can we physically affect stress. Exercise, deep breathing, and good sleep are all things that can combat the physical symptoms of stress. Taking a short fifteen minute walk, uninterrupted by phones or people, can do a world of good for one’s health. Small, routine changes can also help with day to day stress. Don’t take lunch at your desk. Break up your work day with short five minute breathers. For the chronically busy, taking a few minutes out of your day to just do nothing can become a life changer. Add up all these minutes and they will have a massively positive impact in the long run.
It wouldn’t also hurt to do a physical check up with your doctor. Sometimes stress can cause our bodies to go into such dramatic hormonal swings (or vice versa) and the help of a medical professional might be needed. Low estrogen levels can cause symptoms of depression. Hypothyroidism can affect your energy levels and metabolism. High cortisol levels can change your libido and menstrual cycle. All these hormones work in a delicate balance and when they are out of sync with your body’s natural rhythm, they can cause a domino effect of problems. Just because you are not of menopausal age does not mean you are immune to hormone complications. That’s why a visit to a professional is a good idea. And sometimes the solution is a simple daily supplement to help aid the body’s regulation of its hormones!
And of course if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or pressured, therapy is always an excellent option. Even the healthiest among us can benefit from professional therapy. Having an objective third party to work out issues can help us see problems in a new light, maybe notice solutions we would not have seen otherwise.
Life without stress is probably impossible but that doesn’t mean we need to live under a crushing amount of it. Regardless of the shifting social or economic pressures young women face, it is important to make the effort to live a balanced lifestyle to minimize the risk of stress. And the earlier we start in life the better. By making sure we acknowledge the seriousness of stress and its symptoms on our bodies, we can make better choices and help set ourselves up for healthier, longer, and happier lives.