Stress and the middle aged woman

by Dr Alison Palmer of Femma

Many women aged 40-60 years old feel stressed on a daily basis. This can affect their health and wellbeing in a number of ways. (1)(2). Let’s dive in and explore causes and management of middle aged stress in women. 

As a middle aged woman, there can be many stressors affecting your life, such as: 

– Children growing up and leaving the family home/not leaving the family home. There are many reasons why living with your teenaged/adult children can be stressful. And that stress does not usually disappear when they turn eighteen! It can also cause anxiety and loneliness when they leave home.

– You may be caring for elderly family members as well, either in your home or outside, trying to negotiate the aged care system, getting them to various appointments and managing crises as they arise. Add the Covid-19 pandemic to the equation, and you can see how this caring role can cause a great deal of anxiety!

– Relationship breakdown with a long-term partner is more common in this age group. This often comes with a large amount of emotional and financial stress.

– You may find your work environment and expectations changing. Or perhaps you are trying to re-establish yourself in the workforce after taking years off to raise your family.This can make it difficult to balance work and family responsibilities.

– Peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, mood changes, brain fog, loss of libido, changes in periods, hot flushes can all add to the stress of daily life! It is common for women in this age group to feel they need to put everyone else’s needs before their own, leaving little time for self-care activities. Indeed, this age group is often referred to as the “sandwich generation” ie. caught between caring for children and ageing family members.  

So what is stress? 

Stress is a normal physical and mental response to a challenging situation. The feelings of stress are caused by the “fight or flight” response in your body, with the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. If stress is leading to feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope over an extended period of time, then it’s time to re-evaluate and look at ways to manage it. 

How does being stressed make us feel? 

Psychological symptoms include: 
– Feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope, unable to stop worrying, low mood, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, becoming angry easily, feeling restless. Left unchecked, long-term stress can lead to chronic anxiety and depression. 

Physical symptoms include :
– Heart palpitations or a fast heart rate, tremor, headaches, fatigue, change in appetite, digestive problems, bowel problems,weight gain, muscle tension and pain (3) 

And how can stress affect our health long term? 

Chronic stress has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. It can negatively impact your immune system and make you more prone to infections. 

It can also lead to unhealthy behaviours as a means of “self medicating” or attempting to reduce stress. For example : 
– Excessive use of alcohol. This is very common in people dealing with chronic stress. Remember the safe amount of alcohol a healthy adult should consume in a week is 10 standard drinks or less, with no more than 4 standard drinks during one day (4). Pregnant and breastfeeding women are strongly recommended not to consume alcohol at all. If you are concerned about your level of drinking, talk to your Femma GP specialist, local GP or your local alcohol counselling service.

– Drug use – misuse of, and addiction to illicit drugs often start with self-management of chronic stress. There are many services available to assist you in this area. Again, we at Femma, your GP or your state based drug counselling service are ready to help.

– Gambling 

– Smoking 

– Abnormal eating behaviours such as binge eating . Again this is very common amongst those with chronic stress. Food is often used as a comfort when we are feeling overwhelmed. Try to recognise these unhealthy eating patterns. Our Femma team can assist you with this.

– Compulsive shopping

What are safer and more effective ways to deal with midlife stress ? 

– Talk to someone! These issues are common and many women are going through similar situations. Confiding in a friend or counsellor/psychologist or GP can help. Here at Femma we are happy to assist you in your mid-life journey.

– Find some time for self care. Remember, you are a more effective parent, spouse, carer or worker if you are feeling rested, calm & fulfilled. 

Examples of self care:

Exercise
Just going for a short walk can help relieve stress. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy, is easy to commit to, and make time for it in your diary. Often exercising with a friend or joining a class can lift your motivation. Listening to music or your favourite podcast can make exercise a more enjoyable activity.  Check out the many exercise videos and resources on our website.  Link to Femma resources

Meditation & Yoga
Both have been shown to be a very effective way of managing stress. They do require regular practice. Check out our resources here: Link to resource

Mindfulness
This is one of my favourite ways of dealing with stress.Take some time out of your busy day and focus on the moment you are in right now. This can help you relieve your worries and feel calmer.

Practising Gratitude
It’s easy to concentrate on all the negative and stressful aspects of your life right now, but what about all the positive things you have in your life to be thankful for? Make a mental note or write in a journal each evening about something good that happened that day eg. something you ate, something that made you laugh and what you are thankful for. 

A Healthy Diet
Eating less processed foods, less sugar and fat can definitely reduce the effects of stress on your body. Reducing your caffeine intake can also help. And there is evidence that a diet high in omega-3 fats and vegetables can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Sleep hygiene
Problems with sleep are very common when dealing with chronic stress. This may include difficulty getting to sleep or waking through the night and being unable to fall back to sleep. A good sleep hygiene routine can help .

Delegate
You don’t have to do everything! If it’s appropriate for you, let your family/work colleagues know you are feeling overwhelmed and try to share the responsibilities.

Extra Help
Talk to your Femma GP specialist or your usual GP about whether treatment such as prescription medication is appropriate. This may include medication to treat anxiety, insomnia or hormone medication to manage the symptoms around menopause. 

And remember: BE KIND TO YOURSELF

References

  1. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-advice/alcohol
  2. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-midlife-crises-are-different-for-women/
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6298022/pdf/40695_2018_Article_39.pdf

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