It’s Women’s Health Week and there are more than a few signs it’s desperately necessary to focus the spotlight on exactly this subject.
A survey of 15,000 women across Australia, conducted by Jean Hails, released on Monday found:
• 66.9% of women felt nervous, anxious or on edge on several days or more in the last four weeks
• 46.1% reported that a doctor or a psychologist had diagnosed them with depression or anxiety: and
• 34.3% of women reported that they didn’t get time to themselves on a weekly basis.
Despite the fact 70.3% reported doing at least two hours of exercise per week, 50.8% described themselves as overweight or obese.
“Anecdotally we hear more and more about the ‘sandwich generation’ of women, who are trying to juggle busy careers with kids and ageing parents,” Chris Enright, the Head of Education & Knowledge Exchange at Jean Hailes said. “Our survey reflects that women worry about their health, particularly their weight, and getting enough time to themselves just to unwind.”
Peta Slocombe, a psychologist and the creator of Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, a corporate mental health program from MediBio, says perfectionism and self-criticism are strongly linked to rising anxiety among women.
Data from the check-in showed that one in three women are in high ranges for perfectionism, compared to 21% of men and 44% of females use self-criticism as a primary stress response, compared to 34% of men.
“When it comes to mental health we can probably all accept the demands on women are pretty crazy,” Slocombe told Women’s Agenda. “It’s hard to ever feel like you’ve done a good enough job at work, had enough time with the kids, exercised enough, been a good enough partner, a good enough friend.”
For women it’s a vicious cycle because when we don’t meet those standards we ruminate on it and sleep and mental health can both suffer because of it.
“Women – far more than men – are very critical about what we haven’t achieved. The reality is we aren’t designed to be striving for tasks we’ll never achieve.”
One thing Slocombe strongly recommends for perfectionist women struggling with anxiety and overwhelm is recognising the need for different speeds, or gears, depending on the day and competing priorities. Having one set of expectations for everything isn’t a realistic way to live.
“We are not designed to live in fifth gear the whole time,” Slocombe says. “A practical strategy is being mindful that not everything in a day needs to be a ten out of ten.”
Feeling like you’re constantly letting people down is a sign you might need to assess how you’re expending your energy.
“It’s the psychological equivalent of gear changing. Some things really matter, others are nice to have and other things simply don’t matter,” Slocombe says. “You don’t have to drop things altogether and suddenly not care about your professional performance or your parenting – but you need to learn that life isn’t black and white and take an aerial view of your own life.”
Slocombe recommends mentally rating the importance of tasks and demands and considering how much of your psychological battery you are willing to devote to each. Without doing this many of us habitually treat everything as a top priority and absolutely critical.
Perfectionism isn’t just having a preference for high standards – it’s being dogged about not accepting anything less than perfection which can be debilitating.
“You have to consider the time available and the whole context. If you’re a perfectionist about the house and you’re home full-time with no other stressors then that might be realistic. But if you also work and you have toddlers and kids, it probably isn’t,” Slocombe says. “The trick is to move your thinking towards this: given the time available and all the constraints what is the best anyone can do under the circumstances?”
It’s not a shift than can necessarily happen overnight but Slocombe says with practice it can become habitual.
“A decade ago one in five Australians were found to be suffering from a mental illness in any given year but the manner in which we all live, work and interact has changed radically since then – to the detriment of our mental health,” she says.
It is vital for individuals as well as organisations, from Government to business, to consider how we can address this.
Despite the troubling findings from the Women’s Health survey the good news is that women are generally very proactive about their health. Just over 70% of women do more than two hours of moderate exercise a week and very few of the 15,000 respondents smoke. “90% hadn’t smoked in the past year and half of women describe their health as very good or excellent,” Enright said.
The trick for women is to start viewing their mental health in the same way they do their physical health: as a priority that needs to be considered, managed and treated. When nearly two-thirds of women report feeling on edge or anxious regularly it’s clear something has to give.