A recent opinion poll reveals that New York women are far more stressed out than women anywhere else in the country.
Alright, so it’s not exactly a stunning surprise and we all know that living in New York means coping with fast pace, limited space, exorbitant costs, and other factors that don’t exactly make for a calm and tranquil life. But as a newly released Northwell Health survey of more than 3,000 women nationwide informed us, New York women are actually stressed out about very different things. They—we—are much less concerned, for example, about our ability to pay for health care (39 percent versus 47 percent of women nationwide), but much more anxious about caring for their parents or older relatives (37 percent versus 23 percent nationwide).
What do these numbers tell us? There are many ways to understand the data, which was compiled by the Northwell Health Women’s Initiative in partnership with NRC Health. But one particularly troubling explanation arises: Rather than stress about circumstantial stuff, like paying medical bills that are understood as external and manageable factors, New York women largely internalize their stress, worrying about things far beyond their control. Women everywhere are anxious about their family’s well-being; only New Yorkers, however, let this stress really get to them.
And so, speaking as a New Yorker and a cardiologist, let me say this to my fellow sisters, mothers, wives, daughters and friends: The time is now for us to learn how to handle that stress, as there is overwhelming evidence for the deleterious effects of stress on the heart and also evidence that learning to manage stress plays a role in dampening the effects. Numerous approaches are available for stress management that can decrease suffering caused by stress and enhance the quality of life.
We’re all savvy and smart. In the fast pace of life, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves, so a gentle reminder that heart-healthy eating choices and getting at least 150 minutes of activity a week will go a long way on our own journey to health and wellness. Here are a few additional pearls of advice based on the findings from the stress survey.
First, forget the work-life balance and focus on work-life integration. We’d love to believe that it’s possible to strike an equilibrium that holds our work and family lives in perfect harmony. However, for most of us, life is one ongoing, chaotic, fast-moving torrent: A typical day could be one where we are at work and get a call from the nurse’s office at our child’s school, or relax on the couch with our significant other late at night, only to be interrupted by a work email chiming on our smart phone. Instead of trying to fight this reality, which only leads to more stress, let us make a pledge to adopt a few simple strategies to help cope with the competitive and overwhelming pace of life these days.
- The practice of “deep work.” Coined by author Cal Newport, “deep work” is simply the ability to focus on a task without interruptions. It doesn’t matter if the task is helping your child with a science project or completing your annual presentation to your employees: The idea is to take pockets of time out of every week—or, if you can, every day—dedicated exclusively to being in the moment and accomplishing one particular thing without distractions.
- Drop that smart phone. I know this a challenging request as you probably won’t—we’ve all gotten much too addicted to our devices—but more and more evidence suggests that the more plugged in you are, the more likely you are to feel constant stress. In a fascinating study out of California State University last year, researchers plugged teenagers to heart-rate monitors and other devices measuring perspiration and recorded their reactions with and without their cell phones. When the phones were taken away, the young adults were calmer. When they suddenly trilled, their heart rates spiked, further proof — as if we needed it — that constant connectedness causes anxiety. So while it’s unlikely that most of us will give up our phones altogether, we can still take a clue from literally every religious and spiritual tradition known to man and designate times for quiet, phone-less reflection. Why not decide to put the phones away from 7 p.m., say, to 9 p.m.? It’s a brief two-hour period, but one that allows us to catch up with our families, enjoy dinner in peace and slow things down for a while.
- Human connection is a powerful antidote to stress reduction. Talking to a peer can go a long way in finding solutions to reduce stress. In working a demanding, stressful job as a physician, I am grateful to have colleagues who understood my specific challenges and with whom I could talk about the particular demands of our profession. Your significant other or your best friend are great, but nothing beats talking to someone who intimately understands the environment in which you spend most of every weekday.
Finally, one other piece of useful advice: Make friends with your stress. The psychologist Kelly McGonigal has written a book called The Upside of Stress. As the title suggests, she argues that anxiety is not without its benefits. More specifically, she claims that it isn’t stress itself that’s killing us but how we handle it: If we see it as a burden and fight it, we’re going to lose. If we see it as a challenge, embrace it, and learn to manage it on our own terms, we win. When we feel stressed, she says, we should stop and question what that particular stress means, and what it’s trying to tell us about ourselves and our values. In the recent survey, New York women, for example, have just told us that what they value most is family. That’s a wonderful revelation, and one that can only be fully grasped when it is taught by an unrelenting teacher like stress.
With that in mind, it’s time to get busy de-stressing. I’m not worried: We New Yorkers are a competitive bunch. If we set our mind to it, it’s only a matter of time before we lead the nation in relaxation.
Courtesy of Northwell Health/The Well.
Dr. Jennifer H Mieres is a Professor of Cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell,a Senior Vice President at Northwell Health’s Center for Equity of Care, and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. She is the Co-author of the newly released book, “Heart Smart for Women: Six Steps in Six Weeks to Heart Healthy Living.”.