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We trust our doctors. If we go to see our doctor with vague symptoms such a fatigue and aching gut, and our doctor kindly tells us we are stressed, even if conventional treatments fail to help us recover in a year or two, we believe them. However, dismissing problems as "just stress" not only runs the risk of missing a serious medical condition, it also minimises the serious risks posed by stress.
Who cares about stress?
Surely, if the problem is stress, all you can do is bite the bullet and get on with it. After all, it's not like stress is really a problem.
Actually, stress is a serious medical issue in itself, raising the risk of serious heart disease, psoriasis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other conditions.
In September 2015, the Journal, Psychosomatic Medicine studied 5000 men and women over 13 years, and found that those who were "extremely stressed" were 45% more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes. Recently, scientists from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences also reported that emotional stress increases the speed at which cancer spreads.
These effects are more potent in women. This is thought to be partly due to the type of work that many women do. Many women are in monotonous employment where they have little control and can't set their own working hours, which increases stress levels. According to Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, the ability to "run meetings, set deadlines and decide when you work is a leading factor in whether people suffer chronic illness and die early."
Additionally, many working women are still largely-responsible for childcare and housework when they are at home, piling on further stresses.
This causes long-term stress, which is the riskiest kind, according to Professor Stephen Bloom, Head of the Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism Division at Imperial College London, "When we talk about stress, we tend to think of that fight of flight response...But the killer is when your life is a constant problem, you are living with your mother-in-law who you hate, you're doing a job you don't enjoy...You become anxious and depressed and your body gives up — your immune system is impaired, you develop a greater tendency to blood clots and your wound healing is impaired. It’s a kind of biological death wish."
But what about when stress isn't the problem?
What about symptoms that are a sign of something much deeper?
Mistaken for Stress: Heart Attack
Women are doubly-affected. Not only are women more likely to suffer with high levels of stress, they are also more likely to be misdiagnosed as suffering stress when the problem is more serious. In a 2009 study at Columbia University 230 doctors received two identical case studies (one male patient, one female), reporting with symptoms of heart attack - chest pain and shortness of breath - but also complaining of stress.
Twice as many doctors reported that the woman's heart-related symptoms were "psychogenic" (all in her mind), while the man was almost always referred for immediate treatment.
Women having a heart attack are often mistaken for having a panic attack. This may lead to women being denied a life-saving ECG and blood tests.
If you have the following symptoms, go straight to your A&E or ER, and ask for further investigations. Heart attack in women causes obscure symptoms, but one in four women will die because of heart disease. Always ask for further investigation:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or fullness in your chest, lasting more than a few minutes or that goes away and then comes back
- Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
- Cold sweat