APA survey finds gender differences in the effects of stress

by Public Relations Staff

March 8, 2006 — Women say they feel the effects of stress on their physical health more than men, according to survey findings released by APA last month as part of the new Mind/Body Health public education campaign. The survey also found that Americans engage in unhealthy behaviors such as comfort eating, poor diet choices, smoking and inactivity to help deal with stress, and that people experiencing stress are more likely to report hypertension, anxiety or depression, and obesity.

The survey, conducted by APA in partnership with the National Women’s Health Resource Center and iVillage.com, looked at how people deal with stress and its effect on mind/body health among women and men.

Survey highlights include:

Women and men experience stress differently

  • Nearly half of Americans, especially women, parents, and people of working age, are concerned with the amount of stress in their lives.

  • Women say stress affects them more than men do (51 percent versus 43 percent) and are more likely than men to report more things that stress them out. Women also express concern about how stress affects their lives more than men.

  • Women dealing with stress report feelings of nervousness, wanting to cry, or lack of energy, while men talk about trouble sleeping or feeling irritable or angry.

  • Women are more likely than men to report health problems related to stress such as hypertension, anxiety or depression and obesity.

  • Stress is higher among the family’s health care decision maker. Seventy-three percent of women identify themselves as the primary decision maker in the household for health issues versus 40 percent of men.

Stress affects mind/body health

Stress affects overall mind/body health. Adults who experience a great deal of stress rate their mental and physical health lower than adults who are not experiencing stress. People experiencing stress are more likely to report a number of specific ailments and symptoms, including feeling nervous or sad, symptoms of fatigue, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, lack of interest, motivation or energy and headaches.

Leading sources of stress

Stress is generally driven by work and money followed by health concerns and children.

  • Twenty-eight percent of women call money a “very significant” source of stress, versus 19 percent of men.

  • Twenty-seven percent of women worry about the health of a spouse or child, versus 20 percent of men, and 27 percent worry about health problems affecting parents, versus 20 percent of men.

  • Twenty-four percent of women say children are a very significant source of stress in their lives, compared to 15 percent of men.

Smoking and inactivity

  • People who are “very concerned” about their stress are more likely to be smokers. A quarter (27 percent) of those very concerned about their stress smoke every day, versus 19 percent of those “not at all” concerned with stress. Interestingly, forty-nine percent of single fathers and 31 percent of single mothers smoke three or more times a week.

  • Americans who report they are “very concerned” about stress also exercise less. Roughly a third (36 percent) said they did not exercise in the last week, versus a quarter (27 percent) of those “not at all concerned” about stress.

Comfort eating and poor diet choices

  • One in four Americans turns to food to help alleviate stress or deal with problems. Comfort eaters report higher levels of stress than average and exhibit higher levels of all the most common symptoms of stress, including fatigue, lack of energy, nervousness, irritability, and trouble sleeping.

  • Comfort eaters are also more likely than the average American to experience health problems like hypertension and high cholesterol. Some 65 percent of comfort eaters characterize themselves as somewhat or extremely overweight and are twice as likely as the average American to be diagnosed with obesity.

APA and its survey partners released the results at a press briefing in New York City. The findings were reported in multiple media outlets and were featured on a Feb. 23 segment of ABC’s Good Morning America program, in which Russ Newman, PhD, JD, executive director of APA's Practice Directorate, participated.

“Everybody experiences stress,” says Newman. “The key is how effectively people deal with and manage stress. People who turn to comfort food or smoking are starting a vicious cycle. Their attempts to reduce stress can actually lead to health problems that result in increased stress."

To accompany the survey results, APA and its survey sponsors released tips for managing stress and a “Stress Smarts Quiz.” To read the full survey results, visit the APAHelpcenter website.

APA’s public education campaign, "Mind/Body Health: For a Healthy Mind and Body, Talk to a Psychologist," highlights psychology’s unique role at the intersection between mental and physical well-being.