Melissa BiscardiApr 21

The Short End of the Stick: Stress and the Female Brain

A woman sits in a bathtub, reading a book.

I am so stressed.

You’re stressing me out.

This has been such a stressful year.

We toss that world around a lot, and none more so than in the past 14 months. It has been a very stressful year.

The word itself brings to mind images of running late, pulling our hair out at work, juggling a job, family, friends, and relationships, or more acute situations like dealing with the death of a loved one or a marriage that’s falling apart. There’s no shortage of scenarios that cause us stress at the best of times.

And in the current global climate — including the pandemic, political division, accelerating climate change, and more — stress of enormous proportions seems to be coming at us from all directions.

It’s like a second pandemic stacked on top of the first.

But what exactly are we talking about, and what does it mean for women?

For starters, women are more likely than men to report feeling physically and emotionally stressed. In fact, women have twice the rate of anxiety and depression.

That’s obviously bad news, as nothing is more damaging to the brain than stress. It literally shrinks it.

You read that right: stress shrinks your brain. I don’t know about you, but this is not an area where I want to lose volume.

The challenge, though, is that most women don’t even realize the most common and influential stressors that they’re exposed to every day, or the slow and significant toll they take on the brain.

The Most Common Stressors

We’ve become pretty good at recognizing stress that comes from big, life-changing events: illnesses, death, disasters, major hardships, and so on.

But the most common ones are those that attack undercover, slow, steady, and consistent.

It’s the poor diet with uncontrolled blood sugar, lack of quality sleep, and lack of mindfulness that assaults our brain health like an invisible ninja.

And just because you can walk and talk, hand in your reports, and meet your monthly sales goals, for example, does not mean you’re the poster child for good brain health.

Relentless stress combined with juggling family roles and female hormones, and you could be a ticking time bomb.

The good news? There are lifestyle changes you can implement that immediately provide some level of relief for those wanting to improve their brain health.

Stress and the Female Brain

Research has shown that the female brain responds differently than the male brain when under stress. In women, the limbic system — a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion — lights up when they’re feeling stressed. And while this activation generally lasts longer than the stress task itself for both men and women, this lasting response is stronger and longer in the female brain.

In short, women experience a longer stress response to the same stressor.

Men and women also respond differently to stress. Whereas men tend to withdraw from others, women seek the support of friends and family, and enjoy rejuvenating with quiet activities such as reading.

The only thing we don’t yet know is whether these are innate responses hardcoded in our wiring, or the result of socialization.

Stress, Hormones, and the Menstruating Woman

No discussion on women and stress is complete without acknowledging what we all know to be true: changes in hormones during menstruation can impact our brain. We don’t need a scientific study to confirm that, although those studies do exist.

Women experience irritability, anger, emotionality, and in some severe cases, psychosis (often referred to as premenstrual syndrome, or PMS).

But here’s the reality: this is not how Mother Nature designed us. Not even close. Most if not all of those “symptoms” are a result of lifestyle — sleep, exercise, blood sugar, and so on — and its influence on our brains rather than biology.

We are not predisposed to ‘crazy’ behavior once a month for 40 years of our lives. Shocking, I know. But true.

So what does it all mean? We don’t have to feel that way. We have the power to make changes and feel better.

Sounds good, right? Finally. Up to this point, I’ve basically said most of us women are running around, hormones raging and brains shrinking. It’s time to switch that narrative.

So, what can we do? How do we get the long end of the stick and thrive?

As I always say, the work is simple but not easy. Start with small changes, celebrate your little wins, and add more as you go along:

1. Gratitude: Start a daily gratitude practice. Research has shown that gratitude helps increase quality of life. Every morning or evening, think of 10 different things you’re grateful for, and jot them down in a gratitude journal for bonus points.

2. Breath: Our breath is so powerful, yet we hardly know it’s there. Be mindful of your breath. Belly breathe and bring in the oxygen that your cells need to thrive. Try an app designed to help you be aware of and breathe better.

3. Diet: Eat a diet high in protein, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables. Keep your blood sugar in balance.

4. Sleep: Make quality sleep a priority, not just something you have to do. Turn off electronics and screens at least an hour before bedtime. You’ll notice an immediate improvement.

5. Pleasure: Do something daily that brings you pleasure. Females are often the caregiver and all-too-often forget to care for themselves.

That’s five to dip your toe. So, what are you waiting for? Your better brain and life await.

Let’s get destressing.