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Holiday Cheer Means Stress For Women

Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Society for Women's Health Research
December 18, 2003

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.

December 18, 2003 Society for Women's Health Research


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