While still catching-up to men in some spheres of modern life, women appear to be way ahead in at least one undesirable category. "Women are particularly susceptible to developing depression and anxiety disorders in response to stress compared to men," according to Dr. Yehuda.
Studies of both animals and humans have shown that sex hormones somehow modulate the stress response, causing females under stress to secrete more of the trigger chemicals like CRF than do males under the same conditions. In several of the studies, when stressed-out female rats had their ovaries removed, their chemical responses became equal to those of the males.
Adding to a woman's increased dose of stress chemicals, are her increased "opportunities" for stress. "It's not necessarily that women don't cope as well. It's just that they have so much more to cope with," says Dr. Yehuda. "Their capacity for tolerating stress may even be greater than men's," she observes, "it's just that they're dealing with so many more things that they become worn out from it more visibly and sooner."
Dr. Yehuda, also chief psychiatrist at New York's Veteran's Administration Hospital, notes another difference between the sexes. "I think that the kinds of things that women are exposed to tend to be in more of a chronic or repeated nature. Men go to war and are exposed to combat stress. Men are exposed to more acts of random physical violence. The kinds of interpersonal violence that women are exposed to tend to be in domestic situations, by, unfortunately, parents or other family members, and they tend not to be one-shot deals. The wear-and-tear that comes from these longer relationships can be quite devastating."
Adeline Alvarez told She TV how a lifetime of chronic stress finally overwhelmed her. "My mom was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1964 when my sister was born," she recalls, "and there were times that she wouldn't even know who we were, and it wasn't good for us to be with her, so they would separate us. I just had this little world of my own and I cried a lot."
Alvarez married at 18 and gave birth to a son, but was determined to finish college. "I struggled a lot to get the college degree. I was living in so much insanity that that was my escape, to go to school, and get ahead and do better." Later, her marriage ended and she became a single mother. "It's the hardest thing to take care of a teenager, have a job, pay the rent, pay the car payment, and pay the debt. I lived from paycheck to paycheck."
Finally, the relentless pressure became too much to bear. "I went into a severe depression. I found myself in the attic looking at these pictures and crying over them, blaming myself like 'what did I do?'" Alvarez recalls. "I was beating myself up. I lost my job, and I really broke down. Then the car broke down on top of that. I had a nervous breakdown for two months in the house and I couldn't function. I wouldn't even go out to shop."
Not everyone experiences the kinds of severe chronic stresses Adeline Alvarez describes. But most women today are juggling a lot of obligations, with few breaks, and feeling the strain. Alvarez's experience demonstrates the importance of finding ways to diffuse stress before it threatens your health and your ability to function.