When her stress levels become unmanageable, 47-year-old Alisa Schindler heads to her Port Washington home’s computer room to write. Married with three active boys, ages 15, 12 and 10, she also takes care of her father, who has been ailing for many years. She has been caring for him since she graduated from college, living with him because she was afraid to leave him alone.
When it all gets to be too much, Schindler says, she finds solace in writing. Articles she has published focus on being a caretaker of an ill parent. “People do get back to me,” she said. “It makes me not feel alone. Writing is actually my savior.”
Last fall, Northwell Health and its Katz Institute for Women’s Health partnered with National Research Corporation Health to conduct a survey. National in its reach, the study queried 3,000 people, asking them about their health, including how they experience stress. The findings were hardly a surprise: Women in the tristate area are significantly more prone to stress.
“As a provider who takes care of women, and looking at my own life, I probably could have predicted the results that were found,” said Dr. Lucy Gade, an OB/GYN with an expertise in Integrative Women's Health and gynecology. She practices at Glen Cove Hospital and the Family Health Center in Oyster Bay.
The survey found that 43 percent of tristate women experience the most stress when trying to balance work and their personal lives. And they are significantly more prone to stress than men, or women in other areas of the country. For 41 percent of them, caring for aging or ailing parents causes the most stress.
“My father has had a lifetime of difficulty mentally and physically, and I’ve always been finding him a place to live, home-aids — basically cleaning up his mess,” Schindler said, adding that her parents are divorced. “When he was diagnosed with lymphoma, I had him in an independent living facility, but he didn’t do well there and became depressed.”
Given the whirlwind of helping her father and caring for her family, Schindler seldom acknowledges her own stress. But it’s always there, she said. “I’ve always felt a big stress to pretend that everything is OK,” she said, “to present my best self.”
Not dealing with stress can be unhealthy, Gade said. “For the longest time, we knew intuitively that stress isn’t good for you,” she said, “but now we have data that proves it. It’s even a big factor in chronic disease.”
Michele Pattson, of Massapequa, often travels for work. Married with two children, a boy, 11, and a girl, 8, she, too, takes care of an elderly parent. “I leave at 7:40 every morning to work in the city and get home at 7:30 at night,” she said. “My kids are basically raised by our nanny. My elderly mother lives in Queens, a 40-minute drive. God forbid something happens to her.”
Pattson is in sales in the financial services industry. She wishes her employer would allow her to work at home once in a while. Leaving on Sunday for a business trip, and not returning until Wednesday night, makes it difficult for her to spend time with her children. “If I do work from home on a rare occasion, I take the phone everywhere, even in my bedroom,” she said. “They say if you don’t answer your phone, where could you possibly be? It’s actually less stressful for me to go in.”
The stress women experience, Gade said, is due in part to the evolution of their role in society. “They are caregivers to their parents and children, and now, in the workforce, have positions of leadership,” she said. “That causes more stress for them, and technology has added even more stress. Even when you’re technically ‘off,’ there really is no downtime.”
“Women are so overwhelmed with all that they do,” Gade added. “Catching on that they aren’t taking care of themselves causes stress for them too.”
And women are often unable to set boundaries or ask for help, she said. “Women set the bar so high,” Gade said. “They’re constantly thinking, Why can’t I do that? Just because a sister, mother or friend is doing something, we all don’t have to.”
Celeste Carlin, a social worker, is also a holistic psychotherapist. “Anyone who walks in my door is feeling stressed about something,” she said.
She runs art workshops in Huntington, which include yoga to help patients relax. “As people go through difficult life transitions, it can be emotional,” she said. “When they talk and share, it calms everyone down.”
She believes meditation can help, because it helps to “call the mind back from the thoughts that scare everyone,” she said. “There are many avenues to learn natural skills to calm down. By turning up the music and dancing, we can get back to the relaxation response.”
As for Schindler, she said she believes the world has “gone mad,” but she isn’t giving up. She is setting boundaries, like telling her father that she can’t visit him every day. And she often wears a shirt that says, “Good Enough.”