Do Women Create Their Own Stress?

26/11/2011 09:32 GMT | Updated 29/05/2012 13:30 BST

In 2000 I was diagnosed with stress related depression. Until that moment I thought I was superwoman and could do it all; run a home, rear a child and succeed at the job I loved and do it all to the highest standard, with no concern for my own health and wellbeing. I was on a hamster wheel created entirely by myself.

Two years later I gave up my job as professional lead for health visiting after a very long career in the NHS for the sake of my health. In making that decision I sacrificed a very reasonable salary and an excellent pension for the uncertain world of self-employment. It has proved to be the most powerful and definitely the best choice I have ever made.

Yes, there have been consequences but none that have made me think I made a mistake. Even when my income sank to an all-time low, along with my husband's, I didn't regret it - although I did pick up the jobs pages in the local paper and give them a cursory glance!

Since going through that experience I have been and am still on a journey of self-discovery. It has been both empowering and at times extremely painful. I retrained as a coach and now work with women to build their confidence and self-esteem so that they can begin to take care of themselves and to focus on their need which, in the end, benefits everyone. I also help them find focus when life events have given them a shake. And I help them with balance.

And having been there I have learnt the hard way that no one is immune from stress and the impact it has on us. Stress is clearly a major public health issue having been reported earlier this year by many employers as the top cause of sickness absence. We really need to do something about it rather than see it as an inevitable part of modern living, even a badge of honour!

We all need a moderate amount of stress to give us that buzz to motivate us and without being able to produce the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, we wouldn't be able to respond to threats to life and limb. However our brains cannot distinguish between that real threat and the impact of being stuck in traffic, an overwhelming to do list or an argument with our partners. And chronic stress can have an effect on our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing as well as on all our relationships.

I am particularly interested in stress in women and I find myself getting so frustrated when I see women in the same position I was all those years ago, feeling totally overwhelmed by everything, and I want to scream at them to do something. But somehow it leaves you powerless and you feel that you have no choice.

Having read the work of a hypnotherapist colleague locally called Jonathan Lloyd, I have come up with my own theory as to why we do it to ourselves. The only evidence I have is my own story and the stories I hear so often from other women but it all seems pretty consistent. So see what you think in the list below and see if it applies to you:-

  • Women who experience stress appear to value themselves by how they are helping others and making others in their lives happy, their children, their employers, their parents and whoever else is in their lives.
  • They will often complain about the amount expected of them again by their families and their employers
  • We and society have unrealistic expectations of women. We think we can have it all; family, career, beautiful home, perfect relationships. We have to be perfect in every role we take on. To do that we need to be in control of everything.
  • The consequence is that we feel unsupported and undervalued by everyone and reluctant to ask for help.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Through coaching I have learnt to take responsibility for myself, to care for myself in a more healthy way, to have more respect for myself and to place a greater value on my needs. So often we are caring for others; our children, our parents as they get older and in our careers, particularly in caring professions, but somehow we don't seem to appreciate that if we are going to care for others we need to care for ourselves first. After all who do the air crew tell to take the oxygen masks first?

So I guess I'm going to conclude this article with a calling forth of women reading this to just assess where you're at and what choices you need to make to get off that hamster wheel you have created for yourself? And if you're not sure, well maybe that will be the content of a future article!