For many Americans, the pressures associated with gift giving, jam-packed schedules, and tight budgets converge to send holiday stress levels soaring. This year, those traditional stressors have been compounded by the declining state of the economy, which was taking its toll even before the arrival of the holidays.
And women are bearing the brunt of that stress.
"With the deteriorating economy dominating the headlines, it's easy to worry more about your finances than your health, but stress over money and the economy is taking an emotional and physical toll on America, especially among women," said Katherine Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association.
According to "2008 Stress in America," a survey that the APA released in October, almost half of Americans are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family's basic needs. Eighty percent of respondents said that the economy is a major cause of stress, up from 66 percent earlier in the year. More people reported physical and emotional symptoms from stress than they did in 2007, and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.
Women at greater risk
Women were more likely than men to report stress related to the economy. According to the APA survey, 83 percent of women reported that they were stressed about money, versus 78 percent of men. The state of the economy was causing stress for 84 percent of women, in comparison with 75 percent of men. Women felt more stress than men over job stability, housing costs, and health problems affecting their families. Women also were more likely to report physical symptoms of stress such as fatigue, irritability, headaches, and feelings of depression or sadness.
Other common physical and emotional symptoms of stress include feelings of anger, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, gastrointestinal problems, nervousness, excessive worry, and lack of interest or motivation. There is also a strong link between stress and back and neck pain, caused in part by the muscle tension associated with the release of stress hormones.
Compounding the problem, women also feel more holiday-related stress. The APA reports that women are more likely than men to report heightened stress during the holiday season—and that they're less likely to take time to relax or manage that stress in healthy ways. Women were far more likely than men to report unhealthy stress-management behaviors such as eating poorly or shopping, for example.
The problem is that many of these so-called stress remedies actually compound the problem. In fact, stress and the unhealthy behaviors people use to manage it contribute to some of the nation's greatest health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. What's more, the health consequences of extreme stress are most severe when people ignore symptoms and fail to manage their stress well.
"Many say they are handling their stress well. Yet, people report more physical and emotional symptoms. If Americans continue to experience these high levels of stress for prolonged periods of time, they are at risk for developing serious illnesses," Dr. Nordal said.
As for stress related to the economy, the APA notes that it is important to be mindful of the accompanying symptoms.
"People's emotional and physical health is more vulnerable, given the high levels of stress in our country right now," Dr. Nordal said. "Pay attention to what's happening around you, but refrain from getting caught up in doom-and-gloom hype. Take stock of your particular situation and what causes you stress. Reach out to family, friends, and trusted advisers. Research shows that receiving support from others is effective in managing stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, then consider seeking professional help."