Avoid stress. You should, you know. You’ve probably already heard it from a doctor but, for the rare woman who hasn’t, Harvard Medical School has got you covered. Their website warns that women in particular suffer from workplace stress and caregiver stress, and which poses a significant risk to their cardiovascular health.
They suggest women can “avoid stress” by doing things like getting more sleep and exercise, learning relaxation and time management skills, or nurturing yourself by slowly eating an orange, smelling flowers or taking a nap.
Women are supposed to ‘avoid stress’ for better health. But, when you’re managing five things at once, that can be difficult.Credit:Stocksy
How many women got through to the end of those two paragraphs without laughing?
Women, who do the majority of unpaid labour, who are caught between raising children and caring for aging relatives, who are worried about tenuous employment, long term financial security, personal safety and potential health problems associated with stress, are being advised to just avoid it.
Although, if you are able to laugh about this, you're lucky. Many women don’t have that luxury.
Clare*, 34, has a serious heart condition which means she intermittently requires emergency treatment in a hospital. There is no way of predicting when an attack will happen and no treatment that can prevent it.
During one of her many hospital visits she was told that “stressing out” about her potentially fatal heart condition could exacerbate it, and that she needed to “be more careful”.
In addition to her medical issues, Clare had two small children, an unhappy relationship, and precarious employment. As she says, “lessening stress is impossible for some people, no matter how many times a doctor recommends you ‘cut back’”.
Stress, according to the federal government’s health advice website, “is an expected human response to challenging or dangerous situations”, otherwise known as being alive. This response triggers a surge of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which, if the stress goes on for too long, can be damaging to both mental and physical wellbeing.
However, if stress is just how we respond to challenging situations, it’s difficult to understand how people are supposed to avoid it.
Do we stop caring for and about our children, partners, families, jobs, rent, mortgages, bills, social interactions and dangers to the planet? Despite how ludicrous this advice is, it’s still a common recommendation from doctors and online health information providers. Apparently you should “avoid stress” if you are menopausal, or have diabetes, recurrent thrush, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome or acne.
Dr Amanda Newman, women’s health specialist GP at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, recognises that being told to avoid stress is rarely helpful.
“Avoid stress! How frustrating can it be when this is the advice you receive from your doctor,” she says. "So much easier said than done!”
However, Dr Newman says there are times when the advice, if done properly, can be a useful circuit breaker for women who may not recognise how much stress they are under or need some help coping with stressful circumstances beyond their control. She recommends simple tools like breaking huge problems down into smaller manageable components, which can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Very few women are able to cut back on paid work or the unpaid physical and emotional requirements of raising children, but women often take on a long list of other emotional and logistical tasks and some of them might be causing more stress than they’re worth. One practical suggestion is to make a list of all the demands on your time and energy, then mark the ones causing the most anxiety and decide whether they’re worth the toll on your mind and body. Can you give one of them up? Or even take a hiatus for a few weeks? Is there someone you could ask to share the load with you?
Avoiding stress is impossible and it’s a stupid thing to advise someone who has medical issues to do. Managing stress, on the other hand, using tools such as affordable and effective counselling, mindfulness training or even breathing techniques, can be useful.
This is not semantics, it’s about the way doctors understand and treat women’s lives and health. Being told to avoid stress should be an instant flag that your doctor is not taking you or your condition seriously and that’s not something to get stressed about, it just means it’s time to find another doctor.
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