Stress and the Female Brain—Females Feel the Effects of Stress More than Men

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According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association on Stress in America/Stress and Gender, women are more likely than men to report having a great deal of stress (28 vs. 20 percent, citing a stress level of eight, nine, or 10 on a scale of 1-10), and almost half of the women surveyed (49 percent) report their stress increasing over the past five years.

While this may be no surprise to those of you who are female, balancing the demands of a home life and a professional career means that you are going to have to find a way to effectively deal with stress so that it can work for you and not against you.

Believe it or not, we can use stress and anxiety as a tool for motivation and change in our life, instead of something that deflates our spirit and sense of self-worth or impacts our health in a negative way.

The Female Brain and Stress
One way to illustrate why females are more vulnerable to the impact of stress is to share a fascinating research study my colleagues and I conducted using neuroimaging to examine the differences between the male and female brain.

What we found after reviewing 46,034 functional brain scans is that the centers responsible for the processing of emotions are more active in women than men.1

This includes regions of the limbic system including the amygdala, thalamus, and basal ganglia. These areas of the brain help us to regulate our mood and can give rise to fear and anxiety when activated.

This explains why women are more prone to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression, and why we may be more emotionally vulnerable to stress than men.

Effective Stress Management Strategies for Females
Given that women are more prone to stress, the best way to address it is to have an arsenal of effective stress-management strategies.

The Stress in America study1 found that women prefer to manage stress by activities that can be done quietly in the home, including reading (57 percent), listening to music (54 percent), spending time with friends and family (54 percent), and prayer (45 percent).

Forty-five percent of women engaged in exercising or walking to reduce stress, followed by napping (35 percent) and eating (31percent).

Lower on the list of stress-management priorities for women included massage (15 percent), meditation or yoga (7 percent), working with a mental health practitioner (5 percent), or participation in sport (4 percent).

In my opinion, a consistent practice of exercise, proper dietary habits, nutrient support, and mindfulness strategies can rejuvenate your nervous system and mitigate the effects of stress on your body, mind, and spirit.

Given that the female brain tends to be more active, engaging in activities that calm the anxiety centers is a highly effective stress-management tool. Activities including running, rowing, swimming, cycling, hiking, meditation, yoga, and Pilates are going to be best at calming an anxious brain.

In terms of dietary modifications, I recommend focusing on a nutrient-dense, whole food, plant-based diet with high-fiber complex carbohydrates to help calm the brain. Eat foods that support the production of GABA, the calming neurotransmitter, including almonds, lentils, broccoli, spinach, citrus, bananas, and brown rice.

I would also incorporate foods that support the production of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter and mood stabilizer, which includes bananas, quinoa, amaranth, millet, salmon, turkey, sweet potatoes, dates, honey, and leafy green vegetables.

Be aware of the tendency to gravitate toward refined sugars and processed foods, as these will also lead to the production of serotonin. Excess consumption of non-nutrient foods and simple carbohydrates can lead to unwanted weight gain.

Reduce daily intake of caffeinated products, such as coffee and soda, in support of healthy adrenal gland function. Overstimulation of your adrenals will release more cortisol into your system and exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress.

If you enjoy tea, green tea contains l-theanine, which helps to increase GABA activity.

In addition, you may want to explore reducing histamine-producing foods that can put stress on your system, including dairy, cheese, yogurt, fermented vegetables, dried fruits, wine, beer, and alcohol.

When thinking about nutrient support, I recommend taking a foundational multivitamin, omega-3 fatty acids, and trace minerals to provide the nutrients helpful in producing neurotransmitters. B vitamins and magnesium are often depleted when we are anxious or stressed, so including these would be essential to maintaining a calm central nervous system.

Vitamin C will help to support your adrenals. Given that gut health is connected to brain health, probiotics will help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome that includes the production of B vitamins and serotonin, key neurotransmitters involved in stress management. Some of you may also benefit from supplementation with GABA, passion flower extract, or lemon balm.

Finding a technique that allows you to bring your mental processes under control would be beneficial in allowing for a greater sense of alertness, deep reflection, and peace. This may include learning a form of meditation; engaging in breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or the relaxation response; or a quiet form of prayer.

At the end of the day it’s about slowing down to appreciate being in the present moment and learning how to shift out of our overactive mind to connect with our heart and body. For some people, keeping a journal is an effective way to give the thoughts we ruminate on in our mind a place to land and help us to cope with overwhelming, stressful emotions.

As noted in the above study, women tend to gravitate toward connecting with family and friends as one of the preferred methods of stress management. This is a strength of the female brain as we are drawn toward connection with others, so I encourage you to reach out to your loved ones or friends for support.

And finally, we want to look at the stressor and see if we can change the perception of the stressor and its impact on our life. Is there another perspective you can take on the situation? Can something positive come out of what may be perceived as a loss or something that is negative? A coach or a trained therapist can be instrumental in creating strategies to release stress and help us to create a new vision for our lives. BW

Dr. Kristen Willeumier is a world-renowned neuroscientist who studies brain structure to provide insight into thousands of brain-related medical issues.

1. Amen DG, Trujillo M, Keator D, Taylor D, Willeumier K, Meysami S, D, Raji C. (2017) Gender-based cerebral perfusion differences in 46,034 functional neuroimaging scans. J Alzheimer’s Dis. July 12; 60(2):605-614. doi: 10.3233/JAD-170432.

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