If the gloomy financial news is making you jumpy, come sit by us on the ledge. A recent nationwide survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that a record number of midlife women — some 85 percent — are experiencing significant stress because of what’s happening to their pocketbooks. What can you do to keep cash concerns from wreaking havoc on body and soul?
The answer is plenty, according to study coauthor Karina W. Davidson, PhD, codirector of the Center forBehavioral and Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Here’s what she told MORE:
Q. Why are women being hit particularly hard by stress? A. Everyone is reacting to the bad economy. But if the wife often does the grocery shopping, she is going to be hit with the financial reality much more quickly. Also, according to the APA study, women over 40 frequently use shopping as a means of dealing with stress. When what used to be your coping strategy becomes a source of stress, that’s a problem.
Q. How is financial stress different from other kinds? A. It’s both uncontrollable and unpredictable. If you’re a student, you can gear up for a midterm exam. You know it’s going to be bad, but you also know exactly when it will be over. That isn’t the case with the current financial crisis — there’s no end in sight. Another factor is that stress is contagious. As you talk to people who are panicking about money, you’ll have a physiological reaction to their upsets.
Q. How do women respond to this kind of pressure? A. When your stress levels are extremely high, your body reacts by mounting a huge hormonal defense. Staying in that mobilized state for a prolonged period is very harmful; it puts you at risk for hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. The effects of stress are also cumulative. If you’ve been dealing with stress for 20 years, it’s going to take more of a toll on you than it did when you were 15. What’s more, when women are menopausal or postmenopausal, they’re even more susceptible to the metabolic consequences of stress because they’re no longer producing the high levels of estrogen that once helped protect them from heart disease and other problems.
Q. How do we know we’ve entered a danger zone? A. People who are highly stressed often indulge more frequently in behavior that’s bad for them, such as smoking and eating poorly. I ask my patients to isolate the pleasurable sensation they get from the bad behavior and find a healthier substitute that generates the same response. As a result, some of the women who like to shop too much end up shopping for other people — but now they have a budget and someone else’s money to spend!
Q. What’s the best way of coping with financial stress? A. Separate what you can control from what you can’t. If there is something that’s causing a lot of stress at home — say, your children want to eat out every night and you want to save money by cooking — you can plan a schedule that relieves some of that tension: Maybe you’ll agree to eat at home Mondays through Thursdays and go out on Fridays.
Q. It’s a good thing we weren’t hit with all this at age 30. A. One strength of being over 40 is that you are aware of exactly what reduces your stress and what doesn’t. Back when you were 20, you really had no idea. Now, if exercise works, you’ll do it…but if getting up at five in the morning to go to the gym isn’t your thing, you just won’t.
Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.