The Many Faces of Stress—
and Why Women Handle it Better than Men
An experience with absent-mindedness taught Barbara a lesson in how stress can affect our daily activities.
I DON’T KNOW ANYONE who works at home who doesn’t have more stress than they need, and I’ve written much about this topic in my various books and my website, offering suggestions on how I and others have learned to cope with it and avoid burnout. But one day something happened that made me realize that while we often can pretend we’re not overly stressed—and can successfully mask our stress from others—we can’t always keep it from impacting our day-to-day activities.
During the time I was a full-time caregiver for my husband, I moaned to a friend about not getting something done, saying I was “trying to find time” to do it. She wrote back saying she knew what I meant, adding that she had interpreted my statement as “becoming responsible for all household matters, earning a living and performing caregiving duties on half the sleep and rest as before without any recreation or leisure time.”
Pretty close. In those days, I did have leisure time in the evenings after dinner, and on Sundays (depending on how much time I needed to spend in the kitchen), but it wasn’t leisure time just for me. Because of Harry’s Parkinson’s and his inability then to walk more than a few steps at a time, he needed assistance throughout the day and night. Caring for the man who was my everything was simply part of being married, and I thanked God that I was able to do what needed to be done. But there were times when I also needed to be alone. We all need “our space,” but when you’re a caregiver, your space is often the same space as the one you’re caring for. After a while, it gets to you no matter how much you try to argue the point.
When people asked me how I was, I always said I was fine, and most of the time I honestly did not feel as though I was stressed beyond my ability to handle everything well. But then something would happen, and I’d realize that my stress was showing itself in other ways. For example, one week I thought I might be cracking up, literally.
Barbara’s Week of Absent-Mindedness
IT STARTED THE SUNDAY morning I put Harry’s three breakfast eggs in the egg poacher and turned the heat up high (because I’ve always been in a hurry). Five minutes later when the smell of the overheated pan finally penetrated my brain, I realized I had forgotten to put water in the bottom of the poacher. The eggs had literally baked, and while Harry didn’t know the difference, I almost burned the pan to a crisp.
The next morning while making myself a cup of coffee in my one-cup coffee maker, I put the grounds in, poured water in my coffee cup, and clicked the coffee maker to start. Almost burned it up, too, until the smell told me I had forgotten to pour the water from the cup into the coffee maker.
And that evening when I wanted to record a radio program while I was reading a novel, I pressed the record button and went back to my book. An hour later when the tape clicked off, I suddenly realized I’d never turned the radio on, let alone set the station.
And twice that week, I forgot to take my blood pressure pills even though they were sitting right on my bathroom sink where I couldn’t possibly miss them. And I also took out the garbage that week, but forgot to take out the sacks holding the newspapers.
Of course I didn’t tell Harry about any of this because he had enough on his plate, and I didn’t want him to worry that I had more on mine than I could handle. In fact, all this would have been funny if not for the fact that I was getting quite concerned about my absent-mindedness, particularly when driving. At times it seemed as though only half of my brain was working on the thing immediately at hand because I simply had too many other things on my mind or was trying to do two or three things at once. I used to be good at this, but the older I get, the more I see how both age and stress can impact both our actions and reactions.
Taking Better Care of Yourself
IF YOU’RE CURRENTLY on overload, stressed by some life or business situation that can’t be changed and must simply be dealt with, I urge you to take time to take care of yourself. I’ve found that even two hours away from the source of your stress will be a help. If you’re running a business, you must find a way to step back from time to time so you don’t burn out from overwork or worries and, if you’re a caregiver, you must be selfish at times and think of yourself first, or you won’t be able to care for the person who needs your special attention.
To my deep regret, Harry is no longer here, but I have found a number of things to feel stressed about since he died. All this is to say that stress will always be a part of our lives, and what we need to do is learn how to manage it well.
I still work long hours on the computer keyboard every weekday, but the only stress I have now is that of my own making, which is easy to relieve simply by not pushing myself to meet a deadline I’ve set for myself as a writer who’s got a lot of irons in the fire in her older age.
When I overdo it, I use the stress-relieving strategies I’ve preached about to others, and also treat myself to a special dinner followed by watching uplifting television, reading a book, or engaging in one of several creative interests and activities. I also have something else going for me, and that’s the fact that I’m a woman. I don’t know what men do to manage their stress because they have never responded to my book queries on this topic, but women have a whole list of stress-busting strategies, not the least of which is reaching out to their support network of women friends.
Stress Research Studies and Perspective
AS I WAS WRITING this article for publication on my website in 2013, someone sent me an email about a landmark UCLA stress research study I later found on the Web. It revealed that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that actually cause them to make and maintain friendships with other women, and because of these friendships, they are better able to handle stress than men. Researches say this finding was spectacular in that it turned five decades of stress research–most of it on men–upside down. Here’s a link to the article that explains it all, including why women tend to outlive men.
As I was updating this article in mid-2021, I was remembering when the pandemic brought many to the “end of their rope” for a while, and how managing stress quickly became one of the hottest topics in the media and on the internet. In her August 2020 article, “Seven Ways the Pandemic Is Affecting Our Mental Health,” Kira Neman wrote: “You’re not alone—people around the world are depressed, anxious, and stressed, some more than others.”
It offered a good overview of what others were feeling then and perhaps now, too, as we are all still adapting to having our lives turned upside down by Covid-19. In 2020, after six months without the freedom to have leisurely stress-busting lunches with friends or go to a movie, concert, a play, a museum, gym, bowling alley, ball game or simply enjoy a picnic in a public place, we all had to figure out how to entertain ourselves in our own home, usually without friends outside the family. If not for cable TV, the internet, Zoom technology, and books, games, and jigsaw puzzles (sales soared during the pandemic), I think many people would have gone off the deep end from so many months of self-isolation and the stress, fear, anxiety and depression that accompanied it.
On the other hand, perhaps you noticed how quickly we all began to see how living with the Coronavirus had sparked creativity in people all over the world, especially in artists, musicians, and entertainers as they used their individual skills and talents to create entertainment for all of us. Kudos to everyone who found a way not only to entertain themselves in 2020, but to entertain us as well by sharing their special talents, love, and uplifting life philosophy electronically. May their videos long live on YouTube because they’re a reminder that hope is one of our most powerful weapons in dealing with the future. Keep that thought and these uplifting quotes in mind as you continue to move forward with HOPE in your heart:
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” – Emily Dickinson
“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.” – Laini Taylor, popular fantasy author
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13 NIV).
Humorous Stress-Busting Strategies. Many find it a constant struggle to find ways to build in some down time to relieve stress and just have a life. In fact, the more creative you are, the harder this will be to do.
Reflections on Covid-19: My Story of Adaptation, Change, and Acceptance. Adapted from Barbara’s August 2020 Brabec Bulletin.
Time & Stress T/C