Women And Stress

  • Olga Gabriel Master's degree, Forensic Science, Uppsala University, Sweden

Stress is a universal response to pressure, with women often reporting higher stress levels due to unique factors like roles within society and hormonal changes. Stress can affect women physically, emotionally, and mentally, potentially leading to health issues like fertility problems, obesity, and heart risks.

How your body reacts to the daily events in your life is what we define as stress, and it's something that impacts everyone. However, according to the American Psychological Association, a higher percentage of women (28 per cent) compared to men (20 per cent) are prone to reporting a significant level of stress, typically scoring 8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale.

This article discusses stress and its unique impact on women's health. While stress is a universal experience, women tend to report higher levels of stress. We explore the symptoms of stress, its causes in women, and its consequences, including anxiety, depression, and potential effects on fertility and obesity. Additionally, we delve into the relationship between stress, blood pressure, and heart problems, emphasizing the need for ongoing research in this complex field.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as a state of concern or mental tension arising from difficult or demanding circumstances. It is a natural human response that encourages us to confront and address difficulties and potential threats in our lives. To varying degrees, everyone encounters stress.

As stress becomes chronic or reaches excessive levels, the capacity to adjust and cope with it diminishes. Chronic stress can accumulate to the extent that it appears to be a normal part of life for many women.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can manifest in various ways, and each woman's response to stress is individual. Common stress symptoms in women include:

Physical symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Pain (often in the back and neck)
  • Changes in eating habits i.e. eating too much or too little
  • Skin issues
  • The use of drugs or alcohol
  • Decreased energy
  • Digestive problems
  • Reduced interest in activities or hobbies that were once enjoyable

Emotional symptoms  

  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Unhappiness
  • Irritability
  • A sense of losing control
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Frustration

Mental manifestations

  • Forgetfulness
  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Negative thinking
  • Reduced focus
  • Feelings of boredom

Occupational context

  • Overwhelming workloads
  • Extended work hours
  • Tense work relationships
  • Decreased concentration
  • Job dissatisfaction

Social context

  • Reduced intimacy
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Family difficulties
  • Loneliness

Spiritual manifestations 

  • Apathy
  • A loss of meaning
  • Emptiness
  • Difficulty forgiving
  • Doubt
  • Guilt
  • Despair (Cleveland Clinic)

Why are women more stressed than men?

Stress can arise from a variety of sources, including job-related worries and health issues, problems in personal relationships, life transitions such as a divorce or the loss of a loved one, experiences of discrimination, and even criticism. Many of these stressors affect both men and women alike. However, women often deal with particular stressors linked to their multifaceted roles in today’s society.

In addition, women undergo hormonal changes during their menstrual cycles and the different phases of their lives, such as pregnancy and menopause, which can affect their emotions and stress levels. Furthermore, women display a higher susceptibility than men to certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. This increased vulnerability to such conditions can make women more at risk of experiencing stress.

What are the effects of stress on women’s health?

High levels of stress can lead to anxiety and depression. Women have approximately a twofold higher risk of experiencing depression in their lives compared to men.1 Certain types of depression are exclusive to women. Pregnancy, the postpartum phase, perimenopause, and the menstrual cycle all involve significant physical and hormonal transformations. Various forms of depression can manifest during different phases of a woman's life.

  • Perinatal depression: Perinatal depression refers to the depression that affects some women during the period of pregnancy or after giving birth. Women dealing with this disorder experience overwhelming emotions such as profound sadness, anxiety, and fatigue, which sometimes make it challenging to take care of themselves or their babies(NIMH)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): Irritability, anxiety, and emotional distress are common symptoms among women the week before their period. However, some women can experience these much more intensely. This is known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and can adversely affect a woman’s daily activities and general well-being. It can include headaches, joint and muscle pains, sleeping problems, binge eating, and mental and emotional symptoms, such as sadness, anger, depressed mood, and even suicidal thoughts (NHS).
  • Perimenopausal depression. According to most studies, the risk of depression tends to increase during the menopause transition. Depression symptoms during this period may involve frequent crying, feelings of hopelessness or reduced self-worth, emotional numbness, and a decreased interest in regular activities (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists)

Why is depression more prevalent in women?

Hormonal changes in women, such as those during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, appear to be triggers for depression. Research in primates and rodents suggests that female hormones like estrogen play a role in depression. Studies in macaque primates, a type of monkey, have shown that changes in ovarian hormones, like estrogen, can impact brain regions associated with depression. Interestingly, women who use certain contraceptives that regulate estrogen cycling seem to have lower rates of depression and anxiety.

In men, testosterone is converted into estrogen in the brain, and this conversion may have protective effects. Additionally, men have different brain circuitry than women, meaning distinct brain-wiring patterns, which may contribute to their lower depression rates.

Overall, the complex relationship between gender, hormones, and depression is still being studied.2 Depression comes with its own set of symptoms, affecting women heavily:

Fertility problems: Stress alone is unlikely to cause infertility but can interfere with a woman's ability to conceive. Research has shown that women with a history of depression have double the likelihood of experiencing infertility. Anxiety also can extend the time required to achieve pregnancy (Mayo Clinic). 

Obesity: Prolonged exposure to chronic stress can lead to various health issues, including obesity, especially in individuals who are vulnerable to its effects. Chronic or long-lasting stress can cause the body to store more energy as fat, especially around the belly. While it doesn’t apply to everyone, people who are already overweight or closer to the upper limit of a healthy weight range tend to be more prone to weight gain when stressed, partly because of their insulin levels. Also, stress triggers a desire for high-fat and unhealthy carbohydrates, which can lead to excessive food consumption. This is often called "comfort food," and it can activate parts of the brain related to pleasure and reduce stress. In some cases, this kind of eating can become a kind of addiction, similar to drug addiction.3

Heart problems: When we experience stress, our body releases hormones, specifically adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for the "fight or flight" response by increasing the heart rate and constricting blood vessels. This process enhances blood circulation to the muscles, ultimately boosting our physical strength for immediate action. The constriction of blood vessels and the increase in heart rate elevate blood pressure, but only temporarily, when the stress reaction subsides, blood pressure returns to normal levels.

However, chronic stress causes our bodies to repeatedly switch between heightened states and moments of calm spanning days and even weeks, potentially affecting our well-being and increasing the risk of various health problems. The link between chronic stress and blood pressure is not well understood, and scientists continue to study it (American Heart Association).

Stress can affect our health in many different ways. Besides the health issues we’ve discussed earlier, stress has been linked to many other health conditions, including skin and hair problems, irritable bowel syndrome and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you find yourself experiencing persistent and severe stress that you struggle to manage, it's crucial to seek professional assistance.


Stress is how we respond when we sense a threat or face pressure. It is a universal human experience, but women tend to report more significant stress levels, influenced by unique stressors such as their special roles in society and hormonal fluctuations during life phases like pregnancy and menopause. These stressors can manifest physically, emotionally, and mentally, affecting various aspects of women's lives. Moreover, chronic stress can have harmful consequences on women's health, potentially impacting fertility, contributing to obesity, and increasing the risk of heart problems.

Furthermore, the link between gender, hormones, and depression highlights the necessity for more research to improve our understanding and find solutions for mental health problems such as depression in women.


  1. Kuehner C. Why is depression more common among women than among men? The Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2017 Feb [cited 2023 Dec 4];4(2):146–58. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2215036616302632
  2. Albert PR. Why is depression more prevalent in women? jpn [Internet]. 2015 Jul [cited 2023 Dec 4];40(4):219–21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4478054/
  3. Van Der Valk ES, Savas M, Van Rossum EFC. Stress and obesity: are there more susceptible individuals? Curr Obes Rep [Internet]. 2018 Jun [cited 2023 Dec 4];7(2):193–203. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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