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Women with vague symptoms - such as fatigue, general aches, and acid indigestion - are likely to be told they're just "stressed". However, the truth could be devastating, even potentially-deadly.

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.

Is it?

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)
  • Palpitation
  • Indigestion
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

More Conditions Mistaken for Stress

Mistaken for Stress: Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer initially causes vague symptoms. So vague that when young British student nurse Anna Flood, now 28, was told repeatedly over three years that her tiredness and indigestion were just stress, she believed her doctor completely. It later transpired that she had a tumour on her large intestine, a section of which had to be removed.

If you have these symptoms for three weeks or more, go to see your doctor:

  • a change in your bowel motions: looser stools, going more often (diarrhoea), and bloody stools
  • a change in your bowel habit without blood in their stools, but with abdominal pain
  • blood in the stools not linked to haemorrhoids (so without a protruding lump in the anus)
  • abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating when you eat, leading you to eat less and lose weight
Be aware that you might not feel very ill with bowel cancer.

Mistaken for Stress: Multiple Sclerosis

14% of patients with MS are initially misdiagnosed with "stress". When Kate, a teacher from Bristol, started suffering with the telltale "strange sensations" in her leg and wrist, she was told by a neurologist that it was just "stress" after her recent break-up with a boyfriend. Fortunately, he referred her for a scan, "just in case", which diagnosed the condition.

Many patients with Multiple Sclerosis aren't so lucky, having to wait three years for any kind of diagnosis.

It's hard to list the symptoms of MS, as there are a huge range of potential symptoms, affecting all areas of the body, and they vary from person to person. However, here are some of the most common symptom categories:

  • Fatigue
  • vision problems
  • numbness/tingling
  • muscle spasms/stiffness/weakness
  • mobility problems
  • pain
  • depression and anxiety
  • sexual problems
  • bowel/bladder problems
  • speech and swallowing problems
Many people with MS have only a few symptoms.

If you think you might have early symptoms of MS, see a doctor. Be aware that many of these symptoms have plenty of other causes, too, many of which are temporary.

Mistaken for Stress: Cerebral Aneurysm

If you've been getting a lot of headaches, you probably think it's just stress. Especially if you're a woman with two children, a busy job, and a generally hectic life. However, they could be a sign of a potentially deadly cerebral aneurysm. An estimated 6 million Americans have an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. 30,000 of them rupture each year and half are fatal.

If you have these signs, see a doctor:

  • A drooping eyelid
  • Pain above and behind an eye
  • A dilated pupil
  • Change in vision/double vision
  • Numbness/weakness/paralysis of one side of the face

If you have these signs, seek immediate medical attention:

  • The worst headache you have ever had - sudden and extremely severe headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Seizure
  • A drooping eyelid
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
Remember: a ruptured cerebral aneurysm could still lead to permanent brain damage. So don't wait to get checked.

Mistaken for Stress: Ovarian Cancer

In Ovarian Cancer, symptoms rarely appear until it's too late. 1200 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, sometimes called "the silent killer", every year; 700 will die from it. That's 58%.

The symptoms are vague and easily mistaken for stress, especially since many women develop vague gastrointestinal symptoms, which lead to investigations of the bowel or bladder. Due to the tucked-in location of the ovaries, very often a pelvic examination is needed to spot ovarian cancer.

In 15% of women, ovarian cancer was spotted while the patient was being investigated for another condition.

Be aware of the following signs and be persistent if you notice them:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: nausea, bloating, and heartburn
  • Diarrhoea, and constipation
  • Appetite loss
  • Tiredness
  • Weight changes
  • Abdominal cramps not associated with bowel changes
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding

Final Words

Although these conditions can be mistaken for stress, remember that many of them are rare and the odds of your symptoms being caused by them are low. Try not to worry, but always get your symptoms checked by a trusted doctor.

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