How we handle the stress of major life events, like the death of a loved one, comes down to a person’s sex, according to a new study by The Physiological Society.
U.K. researchers claim women have a more difficult time grappling with stressors in life – a finding that’s raising red flags for physicians about women’s health.
“It was striking that for every single event in this study, from money problems to Brexit, women reported greater stress levels than men,” Dr. Lucy Donaldson, chair of The Physiological Society’s Policy Committee, said in a statement. “This could have a real impact on women’s health.”
Researchers surveyed over 2,000 people in Britain and looked at how 18 different types of life events affected people based on a number of factors, including their sex and age.
Among the examples of life events people were asked about were imprisonment, identity theft, terrorist threats, losing smartphones and divorce, among others.
Combining the result of both sexes, researchers then ranked the life situations from most to least stressful based on a 10 point scale.
- Death of a spouse / relative / friend: 9.43
- Imprisonment: 9:15
- Flood / fire damaging your home: 8.89
- Being seriously ill: 8.52
- Being fired: 8.47
- Separation / divorce: 8.47
- Identity theft: 8.16
- Unexpected money problems: 7.39
- Starting a new job: 6.54
- Planning a wedding: 6.51
- Arrival of first child: 6.06
- Commute delays: 5.94
- Terrorist threats: 5.84
- Losing smartphone: 5.79
- Moving to a bigger house: 5.77
- Brexit: 4.23
- Going on holiday: 3.99
- Promotion / success at work: 3.78
Regardless of age, women reported experiencing more stress in every life situation than men.
The biggest difference was in the stress caused by terrorism threats; the smallest difference was the arrival of a child.
But when researchers looked at the age of the participants, they discovered that some events (like illness and imprisonment) are more stressful as people get older.
For those between the ages of 25 to 34, the biggest stress-inducing life situation was the loss of a smartphone and the arrival of a first child.
“While many people are aware of the effect of stress on mental wellbeing, it is also important to consider the impact on the body’s systems,” Donaldson says. “Your brain, nervous and hormonal systems react to stress and it affects your heart, immune system and gastrointestinal system. When stress is prolonged, these effects on the whole body can result in illness such as ulcers or increased risk of heart attack.”
The Canadian perspective
Recent statistics by Statistics Canada from 2014 reveal that 23 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 (6.7 million) report that most days are “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful.”
The report also found that women were more likely than men to report that most days were either “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful” (24 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively).
The rate of daily stress, however, was higher for women than men in all age groups except those between the ages of 35 and 64.
For both sexes, the daily stress rate was highest for peak working ages between 35 and 54.
Experiencing such high daily stress levels often meant a lower rate of life satisfaction. Among those who reported regular or extreme stress, 84 per cent say they were satisfied or very satisfied with life – this is compared with 96 per cent of those among the groups who did not find their days stressful.
Breaking it down by region, Quebec is the most stressed-out province with almost 27 per cent of people reporting that most days were quite or extremely stressful. Ontario comes in second with almost 22 per cent of people reporting regular daily stress.
People who are least stressed can be found in the Northwest Territories, as only 11 per cent of people report being quite or extremely stressed in their everyday lives. Newfoundland and Labrador was a close second-last as only 11.5 per cent of people report such daily stress.
Impact on health
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, excessive stress can lead to anxiety and illness if it is left untreated.
Specifically, stress can affect the heart, lungs and blood circulation, as well as the immune system and digestion.
An accumulation of studies over the years also discovered that stress can impact the fertility and reproductive systems of both women and men.
For women, one 2009 study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley discovered that stress increases the brain levels of a reproductive hormone called ganodotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH). Researchers found that when a protein hormone called RFamide-related peptide (RFRP) inhibits the GnRH hormone, it halts reproduction in women.
Another 2013 study out of Tel Aviv University concluded that sustained stress significantly increases the chances of miscarriage. In fact, women are almost 60 per cent more likely to miscarry than women who don’t live such stressful lives.
As for men, Columbia University researchers in 2014 concluded that psychological stress is harmful to men’s sperm and semen quality and affects the sperm’s concentration, appearance and ability to fertilize eggs.