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Midlife and Menopause

Stress and Health

Stress has a clear impact on our bodies. When we are scared or tense, our hearts race and our breathing becomes shallow. When our lives are particularly stressful, many of us experience headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, and a host of other discomforts. Some research provides evidence that chronic stress can make us more prone to anxiety and depression and put us at higher risk of experiencing intense hot flashes and insomnia.4

It is important to recognize the physical effects of stress. Yet stress is not a simple phenomenon. People sometimes assume that stress alone is responsible for a wide range of physical, psychological, and behavioral problems that may in fact stem from other causes. Some research does not make clear the difference between correlation and cause and effect; many conditions correlated with stress are not necessarily caused by stress, although stress may be a factor. For example, a research study concluding that stress puts women at higher risk of experiencing intense hot flashes and insomnia may not examine the possibility that women who experience hot flashes and insomnia are more likely to feel distressed by the experience, and therefore report higher stress levels.

Health problems that are little understood are often blamed on the catchall “stress.” Women are particularly vulnerable to having our ailments dismissed as the results of stress. For example, before the cause of multiple sclerosis—an illness that disproportionately affects women—was known, women who experienced its symptoms were often considered to have a mental impairment and diagnosed with “hysteria.”5 Similarly, researchers have tried to link stressful life events or certain personality traits to an increased likelihood of developing or having a recurrence of breast cancer, but there is no evidence to back this up.6

The ways that stress affects our bodies and minds are complex, not fully understood, and correlated with many other factors, such as our access to resources, our family histories, and the toxicity of our local environment. For this reason, it is vital that we consider the broader context of our lives at the same time that we learn how stress may affect us. When we focus on stress alone as the cause of most or all health problems, we run the risk of ignoring multiple social, political, and genetic determinants of health.

End of excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter 11: Emotional Well-Being and Managing Stress in
Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause  © 2006 Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Endnotes:

4. E. W.  Freeman, M. D. Sammel, H. Lin, C. R. Gracia, S. Kapoor, T. Ferdousi, "The Role of Anxiety and Hormonal Changes in Menopausal Hot Flashes," Msnopause 12, no. 3 (May/June 2005):258-66. [back to text]

5.  Collin Lee Talley, "The Emergence of Multiple Sclerosis, 1870-1950: A Puzzle of Historical Epidemiology," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 48, no. 3 (summer 2005):383-95.  [back to text]

6. Susan Love "Keeping Emotions Bottled Up," accessed at http://www.susanlovemd.com/breastcancer/content.asp?CATID=60&L2=1&L3=6&L4=0&PID=&sid=132&cid=599  on August 29, 2005. [back to text]

Excerpted from Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, © 2006, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

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