Looking after the needs of an aging family member inevitably results in stress, regardless of a caregiver’s age, race, gender, etc. However, recent research confirms that men and women respond differently to life’s stressors. Scientists at the Duke University School of Medicine who conducted this study believe that achieving a better understanding of these differences may enhance coping techniques and could even help save lives.
How Stress Affects Our Bodies
A stress response is essentially how the human body reacts to a demand or threat. This primal reaction helped our ancestors quickly perceive and respond to dangerous situations. When a man or woman sees, smells, hears or otherwise senses a threat, their “fight or flight” response kicks into high gear, flooding their body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Physiological symptoms of this reaction include increased heart rate, dilated pupils, flushed or pale skin, trembling and tensed muscles that are prepared for action. The man or woman then chooses whether to fight, flee or handle the threat in some other way. This systemic reaction can take a huge toll on the body, and recovery may require anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the intensity of the situation.
How Men and Women Process Stress Differently
Upon examining data on more than 300 adult Americans, researchers found that men may be more primed for this fight or flight response than women. “Normally when under stress, we fight back or run away,” says Wei Jiang, MD, lead study author, professor of medicine, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. But, in her team’s study, “Women were not reacting that way as well as men were.”
Dr. Jiang and her colleagues subjected study participants to a series of stressful tasks that included talking about past experiences that made them angry. Participants’ vital signs were closely monitored during these stressful episodes, and researchers found that women were far more likely than men to experience decreased blood flow to the heart (ischemia) when they became anxious.
Ischemia is a major contributor to mortality from heart disease—the leading cause of death in America. Women were also more prone to experiencing negative feelings and dangerous increases in blood clotting, while men primarily responded to stress with increased blood pressure.
The study’s co-author, Zainab Samad, MD, MHS, assistant professor of medicine at Duke, observed that men managed to keep their outward emotions in check more effectively during high-stress scenarios than their female counterparts, but they were not immune to the negative physical effects of stress. Dr. Samad believes that these findings could help doctors and patients better manage stress, pinpoint cardiovascular risk factors and recommend treatments for both genders. “This could be a breakthrough that we have been looking for to treat heart disease better, especially in women,” she says.
The Hazards of Modern Stress
While we no longer face the threat of large predators, our primitive fight or flight response persists. In fact, this automatic response is increasingly triggered by imaginary and non-life-threatening stressors. In some cases, this may help us perform better under pressure, but enduring constant stress reactions can also become increasingly ineffective and hazardous to our health. The stresses of modern life—family conflict, financial woes, worry over job loss, etc.—are things we cannot run away from or physically fight against.
Because there is no immediate option for escaping our sources of daily angst, more of us are encountering the damaging effects of chronic stress. This is especially true for family caregivers who are under a great deal of added pressure. Unchecked stress can lead to heart disease, sleep disorders, chronic inflammation, weight gain, compromised immune function, depression, anxiety and more. The bottom line is that both female and male caregivers must learn to effectively manage stress levels so that it doesn’t erode their physical and mental health. Otherwise, our care recipients may outlive us.
How to Manage Caregiver Stress
Minimizing stress begins with two objectives: limiting exposure to stressors in one’s daily life and learning to better handle unavoidable taxing situations. These may seem like monumental tasks, but a true commitment to reducing tension and leading a calmer life can be very beneficial for you personally and your close family and friends.
Caregiving isn’t usually conducive to a relaxed lifestyle, but there are choices you can make to reduce your exposure to stressors that tend to be rather consistent. Learning to set boundaries and seek out backup is crucial for this first step to work. If certain aspects of caregiving are particularly difficult, you can choose how involved you want to be with these tasks. For example, if bathing is a constant battle, consider hiring a bath aide to come every other week to help your loved one shower and take this task off your to-do list. If your loved one constantly demands transportation services on a whim, decide to limit your availability to one day a week for nonessential errands.
Yes, your aging loved one needs your assistance and attention, but you have a life and must see to your own well-being, too. Respite, or time spent away from stressors like caregiving, is crucial for a healthy life balance. Catering to a loved one’s every need personally will only develop and reinforce unsustainable patterns of care and contribute to caregiver burnout. Taking a step back from your responsibilities and delegating a few tasks here and there can substantially lighten your caregiver burden.
The second aspect of minimizing stress is highly subjective. There’s no way to anticipate what difficult scenarios may pop up in life, and each person responds to stressors differently. The goal is to achieve a level of mental fortitude and flexibility that will help you process whatever you encounter in the healthiest possible way.
Meditation, journaling and exercise are key for some caregivers, while others benefit immensely from seeing a mental health professional to help them develop the tools necessary for handling extreme stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be especially useful for recognizing and changing negative thought patterns that can contribute to consistent stress responses. Biofeedback training is another tool that allows individuals with anxiety or stress to learn how to observe and control their physiological reactions like heart rate, breathing and perspiration. Relaxation techniques aren’t necessarily universal, so do some experimenting to find what helps you remain level-headed during tough times and what helps you recuperate after experiencing a tense situation.
It is unrealistic to think that one can avoid stress altogether. Life is naturally messy and unpredictable, especially for family caregivers. However, you can choose what situations you place yourself in and how you react to things that are out of your control. It’s up to you to make choices that will prioritize your own mental and physical health.