By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
December 13, 2006
A new survey shows nearly half of all women in the United States experience heightened stress levels around the holidays and many cope by eating or drinking more in response.
The survey findings show that added holiday stress, on top of already disproportionately high stress levels in women year-round, make it hard for women to relax, yet women are actually relying more on unhealthy behaviors to cope with their anxiety.
The survey released Tuesday by the American Psychological Association, found that 41 percent of 417 women in a national telephone survey said they would use food to deal with stress, compared to 25 percent of the 369 men in the survey.
The survey also found that while 44 percent of women say they feel an increase in stress during the holiday season, only 31 percent of men felt that way.
And the top causes of that stress: 69 percent of women cited lack of time and lack of money, compared to 63 percent and 55 percent, respectively, for the men. Fifty-one percent of women and 42 percent of men cited pressure to give or get gifts as a major stressor.
"People who cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle, regardless of the time of year, may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but end up creating significant health problems in the long run, and, ironically, even more stress," said Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association.
Women under stress are also more likely than men to report that they are in fair or poor health, although both men and women who experience a great deal of stress generally rate their psychological and physical health lower than people who are not experiencing stress, according to a larger American Psychological Association survey done last January.
"The effectiveness with which people manage stress, especially women during the holidays, is critical to long-term mind and body health," Newman said. "It seems that women, in particular, view holiday stress and their ways of coping with it as a normal part of the season."
Another phone and Internet survey done last month for the non-profit advocacy group Mental Health America, found that year-round, 48 percent of Americans are stressed by financial issues, with health and work issues coming in nearly tied at second and third. It also found that parents are the most stressed of all demographic groups.
That survey found that 82 percent of adults faced with stress use television, listening to music or reading to relax, while 62 percent use prayer or meditation to cope with stress and 55 percent use exercise.
Researchers know that stress brings on sleep problems, fatigue, headaches, tense muscles, digestive problems and fainting spells or dizziness, and drug or alcohol abuse only compounds the symptoms. Overeating boosts the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases tied to obesity.
Mental Health America urges women and men to try to set realistic goals for the holidays, make lists and set priorities for the most important activities. It's also good to spread out holiday activities, even to the extent of putting off some parties or dinners until next month and not trying to keep up with each and every family tradition.
"My advice to men and women is to pay attention to what causes their stress and to find healthy ways of managing it,'' Newman said. "Everyone responds to their stress in some way. The key is handling stress in a manner that doesn't make things worse."
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