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STRESS: What It Does to You and What You Can Do About It

The Many Faces of Stress, and Why
Women Can Handle it Better Than Men

by Barbara Brabec

I don't know anyone who works at home who doesn't have more stress than they need, and I've written about this topic in my various books as well as here on my site, 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 had 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 inability then to walk more than a few steps at a time, he needed assistance throughout the day and night. I loved his company and caring for him was simply part of being married, and I was grateful to be 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 the same space as the one you're caring for and, after a while, it gets to you no matter how much you try to argue the point.

When people would ask 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 happen would happen, and I would realize that my stress was showing itself in other ways. For example, one week I thought I might be cracking up, literally. 

Barbara's Ditsy Week

It started on a Sunday morning when I had put Harry's three eggs in the egg poacher and turned the heat up high (because I'm always 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. Then, 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. 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 sit right on my bathroom sink where I can'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 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 our actions.

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 all kinds 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. To this day, whenever I'm overly stressed by anything, nothing refreshes me more than a two-hour lunch with a friend. And at night, I can relieve any stress I might feel by watching a good movie, reading a book, playing the piano, or journaling.

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.

UCLA Study Turns Stress Research Findings Upside Down

As I was writing this essay, someone sent me an e-mail about a landmark UCLA 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 has 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. (If the link goes bad, just type "UCLA study on stress" at Google.com to turn up several other sites that have published this article.)

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