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Esther Oon-Bybjerg’s workday will silence any grumbling about yours. The 35-year-old Group Director of Corporate Communications for a shipping and logistics multinational spends part of her day shuttling between the office, nursery and infant care centre, where her three year-old daughter and nine-month-old son eagerly await her arrival.
At specific intervals throughout the day, Oon-Bybjerg will make a trip down to the centre to breastfeed Ethan, and twice a week the dutiful mother will pick Katie up from the nursery to “spend quality time with her in the car,” she reveals.
And that’s not to mention the breakfast she prepares for her kids and after-work activities she shares with them. Did we mention she has a day job, too?
After putting the kids to bed, I will spend another couple of hours catching up with staff in other time zones,” Oon-Bybjerg details. She then unwinds together with her husband over a “nice DVD” just before calling it a night.
Oon-Bybjerg’s packed schedule is common among mothers around her age, who have to juggle the expectations of home with their own personal ambition in the workplace. That balancing act is what stresses women out.
“There’s definitely a difference between women and men because of circumstances, responsibilities and expectations,” clarifies Dr Reena Dabas, an associate lecturer of psychology at the Singapore Institute of Management and Kaplan. Dr Dabas explains that males and females undergo ‘gender socialisation’ when young, after which boys and girls are taught to behave differently. “For example, it is the gender norm for women to raise a family,” she adds. So it isn’t true that women don’t cope as well; they just have more to cope with.
In this modern world, where most working women are as ambitious as men, this can lead to a rift between what they want and what is expected of them. “Even married working mothers whose husbands espouse an egalitarian philosophy still find themselves saddled with housework and childcare responsibilities,” Dr Dabas remarks.
The double role is the big contributor to stress among women. More than half of the patients treated for depression and anxiety at the Institute of Mental Health are women. In fact, those ailments are among five most prevalent conditions at the hospital, according to a spokesperson.
“Women tend to be more relationship-oriented, so anything that threatens their relationships, or the circle around them, will lead to stress,” explains Dr Dabas. “Males tend to have a ‘distraction attitude’, in which they distract themselves from their stress, while women do the opposite and ruminate.”
To alleviate the causes of stress, Dr Dabas advises women to evaluate themselves and arrive at a clear perception of what they want at home and in the office. “This is a very important thing to do,” she adds.
In Oon-Bybjerg’s case, while she is blessed with a caring husband and supportive parents, the triple role of mother, wife and friend comes at a price.
“I can no longer be as spontaneous,” she bemoans, highlighting the fact that she has had fewer catch-up sessions with friends. Still, the plucky lady says besides dry and tired skin, her stress levels are “manageable,” thanks to a regimen of eating, shopping and praying.
“A healthy amount of stress actually gives someone more energy and makes them react more quickly,” states Dr Dabas. “But an unhealthy amount of stress causes anxiety, depression and physical illness.”
To ensure you don’t tip over the edge, it’s helpful to keep a few health points in check, says Ms Elgin Lee, a principal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) at 21st Century Esthetic and Wellness Academy. The usual symptoms of stress women suffer from include irregular menstruation, susceptibility to rage, irritability, frequent sighing, breast distension, constipation, lower abdominal pain and migraines, she lists. Dr Dabas adds “relationship difficulties” into the telltale signs of dangerous stress levels. So if you find yourself arguing incessantly over minor conflicts, perhaps it’s time to take a
step back and pause for breath.
Compared to Oon-Bybjerg, Jessica Lee has it easy. The 25-yearold civil servant is single, has no plans to have kids soon, and is content with her job: her co-workers are friendly, the environment conducive, and the hours acceptable. But it isn’t for any of those reasons in particular that account for her low stress levels; rather, it is how she draws a strict line between work and life.
“Whatever happens at work stays at work. I don’t combine work with life. When I’m in the office, I focus on my job but when I’m out of it, work ceases to be my highest priority,” Lee says confidently.
Working overtime isn’t the norm, but even when she has to— or if she has a disconcerting amount of work piled up—she has a routine. “I don’t believe you should start work when stressed,” Lee laughs. “If I think I have too much work, I go for a quick walk to blow off some steam.” Once composed, she writes a to-do list and begins tackling each item individually. Looking at it from that micro-perspective, she explains there really is “no such thing as ‘unmanageable work stress.’” Lee adds, “Sometimes, a small amount can be helpful to distract myself from the other, more personal matters in my life.”
Dr Reena Dabas and TCM expert Elgin Lee suggest ways to combat stress.
Research shows that certain types of music react to the body’s natural rhythm, especially the brainwaves, to produce effects such as deeper breathing, slower heart rate and a heightened state of relaxation. Music can also bring about emotional relief, which should reduce stress levels.
Visualisation means envisioning yourself in a relaxing and calming atmosphere—say a deserted beach with waves crashing gently—to bring about emotional relief. Visualisation has been successfully used in sports, and is also an important form of spiritual exercise in Buddhism.
For someone suffering from anxiety or depression due to work-life imbalance, Elgin recommends Xiao Yao San (roughly translated as ‘Wandering Boundless’). The herbal formula, widely prescribed for gynaecological disorders such as menopausal syndrome, uterine bleeding and irregular menses, is also a common remedy for anxiety, irritability, depression and, of course, stress.
If, like Oon-Bybjerg, stress is giving you dry skin, Elgin recommends Dong Quai, also commonly known as ‘female ginseng’. It has anti-inflammatory qualities while promoting healthy oestrogen and progesterone levels. However, pregnant women should avoid the herb.
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.1. Find NATURA at Eu Yan Sang retail outlets, newsstands and major bookstores in Singapore.
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