Recent research shows that women have more mirror neurons than men. This means their ability to empathize, reflect and feel is greater, which makes them more prone to stress and its impact, says physician Louann Brizedine in her book, The Female Brain. The stress only gets more serious if you're an entrepreneur--assuming significant accountability for the outcome of an enterprise--while also meeting family, health and social obligations.
Although women aren't medically proved to be more prone to stress, they do have fewer coping strategies than men, according to Dr.
Women also react to stress differently than men. According to Agarwal, men tend to have a "flight or fight" response. They would rather be left alone to deal with their stress. Women, on the other hand, generally adopt the "tend and befriend" response: They cope with stress through talking and sharing it with friends or family.
Experts emphasize that all stress isn't necessarily bad. In fact, UCLA researchers have found that stress releases a chemical called Norepinephrine, which is needed to create new memories. It improves mood and makes problems feel more like challenges, thus encouraging creative thinking. However, it's still up to the individual to channel the chemical reactions in a creative direction.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that stress from engaging in a memory task activated the immune system. These results suggest that deadlines and challenges at work, even if annoying in the short term, could help strengthen the body's defenses.
Agarwal explains it from the perspective of evolution: "A certain degree of stress is important for our survival. It is important that one is eating and drinking well so the body has enough energy to deal with stress." He also touts the value of simply talking--albeit to people who will listen with a minimum of judgment. If you know that a stressful event might occur, he suggests planning ahead so you're better prepared to cope. It's also important to express yourself--creatively, verbally or in any unique way that suits you.
We spoke with several entrepreneurs about their stress triggers and how they cope. Shared stressors include tight deadlines, overcommitment, constant interruptions, indecision and revisiting decisions.
CEO: Nancy Duarte
Company: Duarte Designs
Description: Creates breakthrough digital communications for some of the world's leading companies, including Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Citrix, EDS, Google, Genentech and Hewlett-Packard.
Stress triggers: "After at least 10 hours at the office, I put in [more hours] at home. My days are filled with back-to-back meetings three days a week, and I try to leave one long day open so I can write my second book."
Symptoms of stress: "When I'm stressed out, I eat more and the stress ekes out of me in bursts of impatience and frustration," Duarte says. "I can actually feel my heart rate accelerate and the muscles that make creases between my eyebrows get sore from scowling so hard."
Coping mechanisms: "Each morning I go on a 35-minute walk, which sets the tone for my day. I use that time to process the various critical conversations and priorities of the day." She also makes it a point to get a massage every two weeks. Meditation and hiking in the foothills help her rejuvenate and get prepared for another workweek.
How can society help alleviate these stresses? Duarte feels there is too much pressure on women on many fronts. They are supposed to do it all and have it all. "Materialism and the media have run amuck, and a woman's worth has become valued on her looks and social or professional status instead of solely on the quality of her character. I wish there were more iconic yet human female role models in leadership who would shatter some of these archaic beliefs."
Advice for other entrepreneurs: "Starting a business is hard, demanding and takes personal sacrifice. The very moment you realize your company is going to make it, begin to hire people who are smarter than you and be quick to let go of some of the hats you wear."
CEO: Heidi Roizen
Company: Skinny Songs
Description: Uses music to motivate clients to lose weight.
Stress triggers: Her days oscillate dramatically between entrepreneurial work, board work and "mom" work.
Symptoms of stress: Roizen used to be a stress eater. "When I felt stress I wanted sugar. Now I still have that reaction, though I no longer satisfy it. I also know I am stressed when my sleeping pattern becomes disturbed. This will often mean waking up at 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. with my head full of things to think about."
Coping mechanisms: "I have learned that unless I make exercise a daily priority, it is too easy to let other things get in the way. So I literally schedule it every day on my calendar. I may move the time, but it is a constant reminder to get it done," she says. Rozen is also a big believer in meditation. "I try to put all thoughts out of my head and focus on a word like 'peace,' 'acceptance,' or 'sleep,' " she says. "It sometimes helps to get up for five minutes and write everything down. It helps to know that there is a time I can dedicate to thinking about what's keeping me awake. I can also say that if I am eating healthily and exercising daily, the stress does not manifest itself like it does when I'm not taking care of myself."
How can society help alleviate these stresses? I think the 'larger society' can be harmful if you ascribe to the 'always on' [mentality]. I think more in terms of the 'smaller society'--the friends and family you surround yourself with. I have cultivated friendships with women who are similar to me in career, age and desire for balance. We exercise together, share a bottle of wine together sometimes. I think you have to find people who share your same ideas about balance. If your friends are annoying you, you have a problem!"
Advice for other entrepreneurs: "Your business is not your life. Make sure, even while you are knocking yourself out to get your business started, that you remember to nurture your close relationships and watch out for your health."
CEO: Chris Shipley
Description: A global market intelligence and advisory firm dealing with technology entrepreneurship.
Symptoms of stress: An early riser and typically a very patient person, Shipley knows she's stressed when she gets "short-tempered and sharp."
Coping mechanisms: For Shipley it's important to completely remove herself from day-to-day business every 18 months or so. "I'll go on holiday and get completely out of my routine, out of my element, be it hiking in Patagonia or scuba diving in some remote place," she says. "It's just necessary for me to 'detox' from daily business life and allows me to come back to work with a fresh perspective."
How can society help alleviate these stresses? "We live at a time when people want everything, and they often don't take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. We consume too much, accept a marketer's vision of 'success' and embrace stereotypes. We live too quickly, try to do too much. So long as, culturally, we buy into the vision that happiness comes from consumption, we chase the wrong things and we use stress almost as a measure of our pursuit of happiness."
Advice for other entrepreneurs: "You can eat an elephant, but you have to do it one bite at a time. Stay focused and take time to do the things that make you whole."
Fast Stress Facts
- Common symptoms of stress include general body fatigue, blurred vision, shallow breathing, reduced oxygenation of the body, lack of concentration and apathy. Prolonged stress can lead to an increase in the intake of substances such as alcohol and nicotine, menstrual irregularities, irritable mood, anxiety--eventually increasing the likelihood of heart disease or stroke, Agarwal says.
- Research by Robert M. Sapolsky of Stanford University indicates that sustained stress can damage the brain's hippocampus, making it difficult to learn new things.
- Continued stress is proved to cause skin problems because it redirects blood flow from the skin to the brain, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
- The Journal of the American Medical Association links stress to diseases and infections, including depression, cardiovascular disease, HIV, upper-respiratory-tract infections, asthma and herpes. Stress also slows healing.
- Until 1995, women were largely excluded from stress studies because many researchers believed that monthly fluctuations in hormones created stress responses that varied too widely to be statistically valid.