Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. It occurs when the heart’s arteries become too narrow to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the heart.
While CHD incidence and mortality rates are about two times higher in men than in women, the gap in the death rate begins to narrow when women pass the age of 55. Women older than 55 have a higher incidence of fatal CHD than women age 55 and below.
This is because the estrogen that protects the cardiovascular system from atherosclerosis while women are fertile drops drastically after menopause, leading to a sharp increase in their cardiovascular risk. Low levels of estrogen in postmenopausal women can lead to hypertension, abnormal lipid profiles and insulin resistance, among other conditions.
As if that’s not enough, stress can also take its toll on women’s heart health. In fact, a recent study found a link between certain types of stress and a higher risk of CHD in women….
Stress from jobs and relationships raises CHD risk in women
A recent study by Drexel University researchers indicates the combined effects of job strain and social strain can raise women’s risk of developing CHD by 21 percent.
Earlier studies have linked psychosocial stress to the development of CHD, and the Drexel research builds on these studies by exploring how job strain and social strain work together to compound disease risk.
Psychosocial stress usually results from difficulty coping with challenging environments. Job strain can result when a woman doesn’t have enough power in the workplace to respond to her job’s demands and expectations. And with social relationships, strain can come from difficulty with communication and the burden of family responsibilities, among other factors.
When separately examining the impact of high-stress life events, the study found they were linked with a 12 percent higher risk of CHD. These events include things like the death of a spouse, a divorce or separation or an experience of physical or verbal abuse.
On its own, social strain was associated with a 9 percent elevated risk of CHD. Job strain by itself wasn’t connected with increased CHD risk, but it did have an impact when combined with social strain.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted ongoing stresses for women in balancing paid work and social stressors,” says senior author Yvonne Michael, an associate professor in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “We know from other studies that work strain may play a role in developing CHD, but now we can better pinpoint the combined impact of stress at work and at home on these poor health outcomes. My hope is that these findings are a call for better methods of monitoring stress in the workplace and remind us of the dual-burden working women face as a result of their unpaid work as caregivers at home.”
“Our findings are a critical reminder to women, and those who care about them, that the threat of stress to human health should not go ignored,” says lead author Dr. Conglong Wang. “This is particularly pertinent during the stressors caused by a pandemic.”
Easing the psychosocial strain
Staying fit and healthy is the best defense against CHD, but it’s just as important to dial back your stress levels. While you may not be able to quit your job or completely avoid toxic people in your life, there are other steps you can take to reduce the strain they place on your psychological health…
Developing coping mechanisms can help. Two types to consider include problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.
You don’t have to necessarily choose one or the other. In fact, emotion-focused coping is a good place to start.
With this mechanism, you identify the stressor, whether it’s a person or a situation or your job. You allow yourself time to consider the root of the problem by distracting yourself from harsh feelings. You might choose to walk on your work breaks to get a breath of fresh air to clear your mind. Sometimes, removing yourself from the situation may be all the coping you need to relieve the stressful feelings. Taking breaks at the office is important for this reason.
If it’s not, then you may want to move onto problem-focused coping. This is where you decide to face what or whoever is causing the stress or strain in your life. If you’re feeling an unusual amount of stress at work, you could sit down with your supervisor and talk about it. Often, but not always, the stress we feel in a job situation is self-inflicted. Bringing the problem out in the open can be relieving in itself and open the door to other solutions.
If the problem is a personal relationship, it’s best to be honest with the person causing you stress. Express how their actions impact you. Confrontations like this can be hard, but in the long run, they’re better for your health and may lead you to make decisions that were long overdue. You should never feel bad about setting healthy boundaries are cutting toxic people from your life.
Dr. Mark Wiley also offers 7 tips to beat burnout and save your heart.
It’s unrealistic to think we can remove all the stress from our lives, but now that we know the effect of these two types of stressors on women’s heart health, it’s important to lessen work and relationship stress as much as you can.
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Gender Differences in Coronary Heart Disease — News Medical Life Sciences
How to Handle a Toxic Relationship — Greater Good Magazine
Coping skills for Uncomfortable Emotions — verywellmind.com