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Bring it on, woman


January 2012




Mental health experts are beginning to understand that anxiety does not necessarily mean a warning for more worries to come. They discovered that how anxiety affects us depends on how we perceive the stresses in our lives: Do you take it as a “challenge” or break it down as a “threat”? “Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful,” says Sally Winston, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. “It’s your response to your anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.” Scholars suggests that simply not feeling anxious isn’t the answer. In fact, people who have too little stress suffers as much physiological damage as those who experienced too much psychological stress.

Common sense suggests that the quieter your life gets, the happier you’ll become. However, in modern-day lifestyles, stress is inevitable. Stress is an integral part of our lives, and women, who are more prone to illnesses as they age compared to men, should accept that challenge and manage their anxieties better to prevent, or, at least delay those fatal diseases caused by their inability to cope with stress, which is learned helplessness in disguise. In a sense, stress itself has a sweet spot. Through proper diet, consistent exercise, and adequate rest, a woman enhances her overall well-being alongside the passion for her work. But first, let’s examine the emerging theory behind the symptoms of clinical depression.

Learned helplessness is a formal term to indicate “the perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation”, as defined by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman in his book “Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death”. A widely respected finding among his peers, psychologists have now understood that the more people perceive outside events are unpredictable and uncontrollable, the more stress they will experience, and the less hope they feel to making changes in their lives. Recently the National Institute of Mental Health researchers have published a study in Nature that may link chronic stress, now an everyday experience for most of us, as a lead to depression. The area of the brain that’s responsible for healthy stress response can be damaged if the woman is experiencing chronic stress. The hippocampus, where new brain cells can grow, is inhibited when a person responds slower to triggers of stress over time.

“One way to think about neurogenesis is that it’s a process in the brain that allows you to adapt to changing environments,” said Rene Hen, a researcher at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “In stressful environments where you have lower neurogenesis, this may be adapting to the fact that when you are in a stressful situation, it’s better to stay put.”

In such harsh economic times and stressful working life today, it’s better to develop resilience rather than staying put and backing out of all the things life has been throwing at you. That is, accepting life’s biggest challenges but knowing when to stop when things are too big for you to handle, especially alone.

Nearly half of the American population, about 100 million people, are unmarried, according to the Census Bureau. “But a huge proportion of the population is unmarried, and the single population is only going to grow,” said Naomi Gerstel, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “At the same time, all the movement nationally is to offer benefits to those who are married, and that leaves single people dry.”

As women, we feel a stronger pressure to marry at a certain age. Although research shows that unmarried people are the ones who contribute more to their society, studies repeatedly show that these singletons tend to die younger than married ones. A new study published on the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that compared to married women, single ones face a 23% higher mortality risk across their lifetime, and 32% for the single men compared to the married men. Aside from that, marriage actually alters your hormones so that you, by default, experience reduced stress in the long run.

Naturally, two heads are better than one. As both a homemaker and passionate worker, poor health can get in the way of living our highest potential. Not only does finding meaning outside the home and being engaged with the community challenge a woman to be psychologically more resilient, but long-term commitment with a man provides women support too, and in return, taking good personal care becomes more meaningful, especially when children comes in to the picture.

Working mothers are reportedly happier and healthier than stay-at-home moms, concluded a study in December 2011 issue of Journal of Family Psychology. Cheryl Buehler, professor of human development and family studies at University of North Carolina at Greensboro studied how work impacts the well-being of mothers and their parenting based on three areas: sensitivity toward their children, involvement in their kids’ schools, and learning opportunities that these mothers provide their kids (books, enrichment courses, library and museum visits).

Her results matched previous researches that part-time working moms reported less work-family conflict than full-time working moms. Full-timers did not report more depression or worse health than moms who works one hour a week, so this does not suggest full-timers have lower well-being and poorer health than the part-timers. Apparently 32-hour workweek mothers are able to cope with stress as they are juggling with family life. One theory for the function of employment is to increase social skills and gain awareness of their community and the surroundings. “Maybe that translates to the experience they bring to their children,” says Buehler.

However, this is not to say that supermoms are better off than stay-at-home moms. The key is to keep the amount of stress manageable without compromising too much, as low to moderate amount of stress is necessary for healthy growth. After all, stress within control develops the person’s abilities to cope over time, providing a more established support to deal with stress and makes future adversity less worrisome. Way back in the hunter-gatherer days when a woman’s role is child-rearing and to perform “easy” tasks such as gather plants and other small foods, the deserts were an unsafe and most likely a threatening environment. It was far better to stay put than for a pregnant lady to hunt for food out there in the jungle. However, times have changed. Anxiety is within control, and most of us working behind the computer screens and sitting comfortably on our chairs are within safe grounds, while others choose to accept juggling everything at once – tackling deadlines, picking up phone calls, and eating junk food in between tasks. These challenges take a huge toll for the brain and the body, especially for these supermoms, who are better of spending those extra hours to nap or do light aerobics instead.

Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think”, is a happy, healthy mom who has a flexible working time and therefore the hours to prioritize her kids. Before having children, she thought the start of it would ruin her career, and she would have no time to exercise and enjoy sex. “Yes, life often takes more planning when kids are involved, but planning ahead is a great way to make sure things get done,” she then suggested. “If you don’t have good time management skills before having kids, life will definitely be chaotic afterwards, but that’s not really the kids’ fault.” She did not give up her job to be a full-time mom, nor did she overthink the difficulty to raise children. Neither are a threat, as she perceived them as her personal challenge. In fact, she’s ran a marathon and had a vacation in India after she became a mom.

“I never would have written my book if I hadn’t had my son, and now my book is opening doors for me, professionally,” Vanderkam told The Happiest Mom. “Which means, by the transitive property, that my baby opened doors for me, professionally. That makes me a happy mom!”

Indeed, the sweet spot of stress enables us to handle our work, children, and sex life into perfect balance, women. There’s nothing threatening about finding meaning outside closed doors.