Stress and your health
Stress is a reaction to a change or a challenge. In the short term, stress can be helpful. It makes you more alert and gives you energy to get things done. But long-term stress can lead to serious health problems. Women are more likely than men to report symptoms of stress, including headaches and upset stomach. Women are also more likely to have mental health conditions that are made worse by stress, such as depression or anxiety.1
What is stress?
Stress is how your body reacts to certain situations, such as sudden danger or long-lasting challenge. During stressful events, your body releases chemicals called hormones, such as adrenaline. Adrenaline gives you a burst of energy that helps you cope and respond to stress. For example, one kind of stress is the jolt you may feel when a car pulls out in front of you. This jolt of adrenaline helps you quickly hit the brakes to avoid an accident.
Stress can range from mild and short-term to more extreme and long-lasting. Chronic (long-lasting) stress can affect your mental and physical health.
What are some symptoms of stress?
Stress affects everyone differently. Some ways that chronic or long-term stress affects women include:
- Pain, including back pain
- Acne and other skin problems, like rashes or hives
- Upset stomach
- Feeling like you have no control
- Lack of energy
- Lack of focus
- Overeating or not eating enough
- Being easily angered
- Trouble sleeping
- Drug and alcohol misuse
- Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- Less interest in sex than usual
What causes stress?
People can feel stress from many different things. Examples of common causes of short-term stress include:
- Getting stuck in traffic or missing the bus
- An argument with your spouse or partner
- Money problems
- A deadline at work
Examples of common causes of long-term stress include:
- Poverty and financial worries. Depression is more common in women whose families live below the federal poverty line.2 Women in poverty who care for children or other family members as well as themselves may experience more severe stress.3,4
- Discrimination. All women are at risk for discrimination, such as gender discrimination at work. Some women experience discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.5,6 Stressful events, such as learning a new culture (for those new to the United States) or experiencing discrimination, put women at higher risk for depression or anxiety.
- Traumatic events. Experiencing trauma, such as being in an accident or disaster or going through emotional, physical, or sexual assault or abuse as a child or an adult, may put you at higher risk of depression7 and other disorders.8 Women are more likely than men to experience certain types of violence, such as sexual violence,9 that are more likely to cause mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Ongoing, low-level stress can be hard to notice, but it can also lead to serious health problems. If you feel stressed, try these tips to help you manage your stress. If you need more help managing stress, talk to a doctor, nurse, or mental health professional.
How does stress affect women’s health?
Some of the health effects of stress are the same for men and women. For example, stress can cause trouble sleeping and weaker immune systems. But there are other ways that stress affects women.
- Headaches and migraines. When you are stressed, your muscles tense up. Long-term tension can lead to headache, migraine, and general body aches and pains. Tension-type headaches are common in women.10
- Depression and anxiety. In the past year, women were almost twice as likely as men to have symptoms of depression.11 Women are more likely than men to have an anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.12 Research suggests that women may feel the symptoms of stress more or get more of the symptoms of stress than men. This can raise their risk of depression and anxiety.1
- Heart problems. High stress levels can raise your blood pressure and heart rate. Over time, high blood pressure can cause serious health problems, such as stroke and heart attacks. Younger women with a history of heart problems especially may be at risk of the negative effects of stress on the heart.13 Learn more about stress and heart disease.
- Upset stomach. Short-term stress can cause stomach issues such as diarrhea or vomiting. Long-term stress can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that is twice as common in women as in men.14 Stress can make IBS symptoms such as gas and bloating worse.
- Obesity. The link between stress and weight gain is stronger for women than for men.15 Stress increases the amount of a hormone in your body called cortisol, which can lead to overeating and cause your body to store fat.
- Problems getting pregnant. Women with higher levels of stress are more likely to have problems getting pregnant than women with lower levels of stress. Also, not being able to get pregnant when you want to can be a source of stress.16
- Menstrual cycle problems. Women who experience chronic or long-term stress may have more severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms17 or irregular periods. Some studies link past abuse or trauma to more severe PMS.18
- Decreased sex drive. Women with long-term stress may take longer to get aroused and may have less sex drive than women with lower levels of stress. While not surprising, at least one study found that women with higher stress levels were more distracted during sex than other women.19
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD is an illness that some people experience after going through trauma. PTSD can happen to someone who has lived through or witnessed a violent crime or war. It can also happen after a sudden traumatic event like a death of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, or a severe car crash.
Women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. Some PTSD symptoms also are more common in women than in men. For example, women are more likely to:20
- Be jumpy
- Have more trouble feeling emotions
- Avoid whatever reminds them of the trauma
- Feel depressed and anxious
Learn more about the symptoms and treatments for PTSD.
Do women react to stress differently than men do?
Yes, studies show that women are more likely than men to experience symptoms of stress. Women who are stressed are more likely than men who are stressed to experience depression and anxiety.21 Experts do not fully know the reason for the differences, but it may be related to how men’s and women’s bodies process stress hormones. Long-term stress especially is more likely to cause problems with moods and anxiety in women.22
How does stress affect pregnancy?
It is normal to feel stressed during pregnancy. Your body and your hormones are changing, and you may worry about your baby and the changes he or she will bring to your life. But too much stress during pregnancy can hurt you and your baby’s health.
Stress during pregnancy can make normal pregnancy discomforts, like trouble sleeping and body aches, even worse. It can also lead to more serious problems, such as:
- Depression. Depression during pregnancy or after birth can affect your baby’s development. Learn more about depression during and after pregnancy.
- Problems eating (not eating enough or eating too much). Women who are underweight or who gain too much weight during pregnancy are at risk for complications, including premature delivery (delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and gestational diabetes. Get a personalized recommendation on how much weight to gain during pregnancy.
- High blood pressure. High blood pressure during pregnancy puts you at risk of a serious condition called preeclampsia, premature delivery, and having a low-birth-weight infant (baby weighing less than 5½ pounds).
What can I do to help manage my stress?
Everyone has to deal with stress at some point in their lives. You can take steps to help handle stress in a positive way.
- Take deep breaths. This forces you to breathe slower and helps your muscles relax. The extra oxygen sends a message to your brain to calm and relax the body.
- Stretch. Stretching can also help relax your muscles and make you feel less tense.
- Write out your thoughts. Keeping a journal or simply writing down the things you are thankful for can help you handle stress.
- Take time for yourself. It could be listening to music, reading a good book, or going to a movie.
- Meditate. Studies show that meditation, a set time of stillness to focus the mind on a positive or neutral thought, can help lower stress.23 In addition to traditional medical treatments, meditation also may help improve anxiety, some menopause symptoms, and side effects from cancer treatments and may lower blood pressure.24 Meditation is generally safe for everyone, and free meditation guides are widely available online.
- Get enough sleep. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to feel rested.
- Eat right. Caffeine or high-sugar snack foods give you jolts of energy that wear off quickly. Instead, eat foods with B vitamins, such as bananas, fish, avocados, chicken, and dark green, leafy vegetables. Studies show that B vitamins can help relieve stress by regulating nerves and brain cells.25 You can also take a vitamin B supplement if your doctor or nurse says it is OK.
- Get moving. Physical activity can relax your muscles and improve your mood. Physical activity also may help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.26 Physical activity boosts the levels of “feel-good” chemicals in your body called endorphins. Endorphins can help improve your mood.
- Try not to deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, or overeating. These coping mechanisms may help you feel better in the moment but can add to your stress levels in the long term. Try substituting healthier ways to cope, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, or finding a new hobby.
- Talk to friends or family members. They might help you see your problems in new ways and suggest solutions. Or, just being able to talk to a family member or friend about a source of stress may help you feel better.
- Get help from a professional if you need it. Your doctor or nurse may suggest counseling or prescribe medicines, such as antidepressants or sleep aids. You can also find a therapist in your area using the mental health services locator on the top left side (desktop view) or bottom (mobile view) of this page. If important relationships with family or friends are a source of stress, a counselor can help you learn new emotional and relationship skills.
- Get organized. Being disorganized is a sign of stress, but it can also cause stress. To-do lists help organize both your work and home life. Figure out what is most important to do at home and at work and do those things first.
- Help others. Volunteering in your community can help you make new friends and feel good about helping others.
Did we answer your question about stress and your health?
For more information about stress and your health, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:
- 5 Things You Should Know About Stress — Fact sheet from the National Institute of Mental Health.
- How stress affects your health — Fact sheet from the American Psychological Association.
- Learn to manage stress — Tutorial on managing stress from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- Mental and Emotional Impact of Stress — Information from MentalHelp.net.
- Personal Well-Being Survey™ — Assessment you can take to better understand your stress from the HeartMath® Institute.
- Stress — Information from Mental Health America.
- Stress and pregnancy — Fact sheet from the March of Dimes.
- Hammen, C., Kim, E.Y., Eberhart, N.K., Brennan, P.A. (2009). Chronic and acute stress and the predictors of major depression in women. Depression and Anxiety; 26(8): 718–723.
- Brody, D.J., Pratt, L.A., Hughes, J. (2018). Prevalence of depression among adults aged 20 and over: United States, 2013–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 303. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
- Wadsworth, M.E. (2012). Working with Low-income Families: Lessons Learned from Basic and Applied Research on Coping with Poverty-related Stress. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy; 42(1): 17–25.
- Sapolsky, R.M. (2004). Social Status and Health in Humans and Other Animals. Annual Review of Anthropology; 33: 393–418.
- Perry, B.L., Harp, K.L.H., Oser, C.B. (2013). Racial and Gender Discrimination in the Stress Process: Implications for African American Women’s Health and Well-Being. Sociological Perspectives; 56(1): 25–48.
- Meyer, I.H. (2003). Prejudice, Social Stress, and Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations: Conceptual Issues and Research Evidence. Psychological Bulletin; 129(5): 674–697.
- Chapman, D.P., Whitfield, C.L., Felitti, V.J., Dube, S.R., Edwards, V.J., Anda, R.F. (2004). Adverse childhood experiences and the risk of depressive disorders in adulthood. Journal of Affective Disorders; 82(2): 217–225.
- Gilbert, L.K., Breiding, M.J., Merrick, M.T., Thompson, W.W., Ford, D.C., Dhingra, S.S., et al. (2015). Childhood adversity and adult chronic disease: an update from ten states and the District of Columbia, 2010. American Journal of Preventive Medicine; 48(3): 345–9.
- Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., et al. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010–2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Farooq, K., Williams, P. (2008). Headache and chronic facial pain. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care & Pain; 8(4): 138–142.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2018). 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Table 8.56A (PDF, 36.1 MB).
- SAMHSA. (2013). Table 4: Specific mental illness and substance use disorders among adults, by sex: percentage, United States, 2001/2002. Behavioral Health, United States, 2012. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4797. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Vaccarino, V., Shah, A.J., Rooks, C., Ibeanu, I., Nye, J.A., Pimple, P., et al. (2014). Sex differences in mental stress-induced myocardial ischemia in young survivors of an acute myocardial infarction. Psychosomatic Medicine; 76(3): 171–180.
- Grundmann, O., Yoon, S.L. (2010). Irritable bowel syndrome: epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment: an update for health-care practitioners. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology; 25(4): 691–699.
- Michopoulos, V. (2016). Stress-induced alterations in estradiol sensitivity increase risk for obesity in women. Physiology & Behavior; 166: 56–64.
- Louis, G.M., Lum, K.J., Sundaram, R., Chen, Z., Kim, S., Lynch, C.D., et al. (2011). Stress reduces conception probabilities across the fertile window: evidence in support of relaxation. Fertility and Sterility; 95(7): 2184–2189.
- Gollenberg, A.L., Hediger, M.L., Mumford, S.L., Whitcomb, B.W., Hovey, K.M., Wactawski-Wende, J., et al. (2010). Perceived Stress and Severity of Perimenstrual Symptoms: The BioCycle Study. Journal of Women’s Health; 19(5): 959–967.
- Bertone-Johnson, E.R., Whitcomb, B.W., Missmer, S.A., Manson, J.E., Hankinson, S.E., Rich-Edwards, J.W. (2014). Early Life Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse and the Development of Premenstrual Syndrome: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Women’s Health (Larchmont); 23(9): 729–739.
- Hamilton, L.D, Meston, C.M. (2013). Chronic Stress and Sexual Function in Women. Journal of Sexual Medicine; 10(10): 2443–2454.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, National Center for PTSD. (2015). Women, Trauma, and PTSD.
- Verma, R., Balhara, Y.P.S., Gupta, C.S. (2011). Gender differences in stress response: Role of developmental and biological determinants. Industrial Psychiatry Journal; 20(1): 4–10.
- Bangasser, D.A. (2013). Sex differences in stress-related receptors: “micro” differences with “macro” implications for mood and anxiety disorders. Biology of Sex Differences; 4(2).
- Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.M.S., Gould, N.F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., et al. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine; 174(3), 357–368.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2015). 8 Things to Know About Meditation for Health.
- Stough, C., Scholey, A., Lloyd, J., Spong, J., Myers, S., Downey, L.A. (2011). The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Human Psychopharmacology; 26(7): 470–476.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition (PDF, 14.2 MB).