April is Stress Awareness Month in the US, where as much as 53% of women are reportedly stressed. And the local stats are not much better. Cassey Chambers, operational director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), says more than 60% of calls coming in currently are from women, either calling in for help for themselves or out of concern about a partner, spouse, child or friend.
Dr Rykie Liebenberg, a specialist psychiatrist at Sandton Mediclinic, says one of the main reasons women are more prone to stress and anxiety than their male counterparts is estrogen levels. Estrogen levels change dramatically over a woman’s life cycle, in relation to various reproductive events and these shifts are linked to the onset or recurrence of major depressive episodes. “During the childbearing years, when estrogen is high and cycling, the incidence of depression is two to three times as high in women as men. The highest risk periods are postpartum, and perimenopausal. This perimenopausal period can last five to seven years, which is a prolonged risk period,” she says.
Dr Liebenberg outlined the following additional contributors to women’s high stress levels:
- Sedentary lifestyle: government-imposed lockdowns and more women working from home has meant an increase in physical inactivity. Women who sit more than seven hours a day, have a 47% higher risk of depression than those who sit for less than four hours.
- Long hours: Women who work more than 60 hours a week have three times the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and asthma.
- Overuse of technology: Social media marketing platform Hootsuite’s Global State of Digital in 2019 report revealed that the typical South African internet user at that time, was spending eight hours and 23 minutes on the internet per day, compared to seven hours, 2 minutes in Singapore and six hours, 38 minutes in the US. This can lead to inactivity, obesity, sleep deprivation and loss of human touch.
Ways to reduce your stress levels
“An invisible enemy, stress manifests in different symptoms including fatigue, irritability, insomnia, forgetfulness and depression. However, being aware of your stressors and making sure that you prioritise self-care can make a significant difference,” says Seugnette van Wyngaard, Head of 1st for Women Insurance. She outlined the following tips to help you cope with stress:
- There’s an app for that. In a world where there literally seems to be an app for everything, you can download an app to help you clear your head and get you into a calm, good mental space. Some helpful apps include Headspace, Calm, GPS for the Soul, Stress Doctor and the Mindfulness App.
- Get moving. Exercise and physical activity promote the production of endorphins which are your brain’s “feel-good” transmitters, promoting a heightened state of well-being. Regular exercise also improves your confidence and, in turn, your positivity levels.
- Take time for yourself. “I don’t have enough time,” is what most women would say. The answer is that you have to make time for yourself. Read a magazine, meet a friend for coffee, run a bubble bath. You don’t have to stop your whole life but press pause and schedule time for yourself. Remember the airplane instructions? You need to put your own mask on before you can help anyone else.
- Focus on your breathing. Dr Ela Manga, founder of Breathwork Africa, says practising conscious breathing can help you build self-awareness and find your inner calmness. The more you practise this, the easier it will be. A form of conscious breathing that has been commonly recommended to Covid patients over the last year is box breathing. To box breathe, you breathe in four stages with the same amount of time for each stage. The four-stage process would be as follows:
- Inhale slowly for a count of 4
- Pause for a count of 4
- Exhale slowly for a count of 4
- Pause again for a count of 4
“These may all seem like relatively simple steps but practising each of them regularly will eventually have an impact on your stress levels, helping you stay focused and calm and better able to deal with situations as they arise,” Van Wyngaard concludes.
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