Stress and the Super Woman


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As I write this article woe betide anyone who interrupts me. You see I am a man and can only do one thing at a time. Whereas, if you are a woman reading this you are probably cleaning the house with one hand and running an international corporation with the other.

There is this modern notion that women are multi-taskers and it is normal for them to be doing more than one thing at once. I am not going to get involved in the truth or otherwise of this belief but suffice to say that most people, and particularly women themselves, believe it is so.

Now if you are a woman and believe that you can multi-task and believe that you should be handling everything that comes your way what happens when you find that you cannot cope.

Recently I was speaking to a woman who believed that she was failing her family because she could not do everything that was expected of her. As a consequence she was putting herself under psychological pressure and this stress was naturally having a negative impact on her well-being.

The effect of stress on men is well known while, until recently, our knowledge about a woman and stress has been limited. That was mainly because the majority of studies used men rather than women as their subjects.

In evolutionary terms we know that, in men, the primary response to stress is the ‘fight or flight’ response so that their bodies were ready to react according to the demand of the situation.

But when we think about the women in that same context it is obvious they had to think differently: they had to care of their offspring, shepherding them together and calming them down. They had the initial adrenal rush, same as the men, but for the survival of the species their response had to be different.

Shelley Taylor and her colleagues working at UCLA in the 1990s found that although initially the response to stress is the same for both men and women, a hormone called oxytocin is secreted at higher levels in women than in men. Oxytocin is said to increase what the researchers called a ‘tend and befriend’ behaviour in women.

This affiliate response is supported by other research which finds women dealing with stress by coming together with others whereas men are more likely to take a solitary approach. It could be that the presence of this relaxing, calming hormone, oxytocin, is partially responsible for women generally living longer than men.

However, modern-lifestyles are putting more of a burden on women than ever before. For example, women who go out to work, while they have the same stressors as men in the workplace, still tend to retain primary responsibility for dependant care and household chores. And even if they employ nannies or domestic cleaners, they are still responsible for coordinating the activities.

Women have to juggle more things than men and, with the demise of, for example, the extended family, the social support is not there as much as it used to be. The opportunities for affiliate behaviour are less.

The idea in our society that women are good at multi-tasking is perhaps putting an unfair burden on them; which the individual’s themselves tend to reinforce.

Stress is now a serious threat to a woman’s health and, in my opinion, it is important that women (and their partners!) realise that they are not Super Woman. It is essential that they take steps to reduce stress in their lives and to take care of themselves.

If you travel on an aircraft with a child one of the most important points in the safety briefing is that you should take care of yourself before attending to your child. You see if you are not healthy and fully-functioning you cannot take care of anyone else.

Whether a man or a woman, you must learn to recognise, manage and reduce stress. You must put yourself first; you owe it both to yourself and to those around you.

Tony Champion is a business coach and owner of a web site specialising in stress and stress management for business leaders. For more information visit:


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