COVID-19 disproportionately affected women, research shows. They coped with the common problems of uncertainty, financial strain and social isolation.
They also faced more stress during the pandemic because they:
- Increased their responsibilities by schooling children at home and caring for sick family members.
- Dealt with more unemployment or worked in jobs that didn’t offer paid time off for sick days.
- Were the majority of the health workforce, enduring the emotional toll of being on the frontline and having close contact with sick patients.
- Experienced more domestic violence.
- Struggled with reduced access to quality health services.
- Adhered to changing medical protocols during pregnancy, leading to higher stress and anxiety.
- Encountered more inequities based on their race and age. For instance, Black and Hispanic women were more likely to have care-giving jobs that don’t offer medical insurance or time off for medical appointments.
How stress affects women
During trying times, women may be less likely to prioritize their own mental and physical health. Men and women experience some of the same effects of stress, such as trouble sleeping and weaker immune systems. But research suggests that women may feel other effects of stress differently than men.
Stress in women is linked to:
- Heart problems. High stress levels can raise blood pressure and heart rate, leading to serious medical problems, such as stroke and heart attack. The negative effects of stress may be greater for women younger than age 50 with a history of heart problems.
- Headaches and migraines. Tension-type headaches are common in women and can be associated with other body aches and pains.
- Stomach conditions. Short-term stress can cause diarrhea or vomiting. Long-term stress can cause irritable bowel syndrome, a condition twice as common in women than in men. Stress can worsen gas and bloating.
- Obesity. Women are more at risk for stress-related weight gain than men.
- Difficulties getting pregnant. Higher stress levels increase the likelihood of having problems getting pregnant. Not being able to get pregnant is also a source of stress.
- Menstrual cycle issues. Chronic or long-term stress may lead to more severe premenstrual syndrome or irregular periods.
Managing stress in uncertain times
Empowering women to prioritize their mental health and removing barriers to their care is essential. Women should reach out to a health care professional if stress has become too much to handle alone. Coping with stress by smoking or overeating are unhealthy ways to deal with stress.
Healthy daily habits can improve how the body manages stress. Some of these include:
- Exercise. Regular physical activity improves mood, energy and sleep quality.
- Eat well. Avoid too much caffeine, sugar and fatty foods. Opt for nutritious, well-balanced meals.
- Recharge. Step away from to-do lists and turn off the news. Pursue healthy hobbies and prioritize your health.
- Connect. Seek support from family, friends and social groups.
- Sleep better. Aim for seven or more hours of quality sleep a day.
- Meditate. Meditation may help lower stress. It also may help improve anxiety and lower blood pressure.