While the COVID-19 virus has killed a half million Americans and caused still unknown damage to millions more, the stress of enduring a global pandemic is also taking a toll, especially on women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds thirds of women play some sort of caregiver role, whether that's to a spouse, children, parents, and/or neighbors –– and the need for such care has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
"Most women are already doing unpaid caregiver work. Now they're quarantining, they're working at home, they're helping their children with remote school," said Sheralee D. Petersen, PA–C, a certified physician assistant at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.
"At the same time, things that help relieve stress, such as direct access to strong social networks and physical activity, may be limited. It's a disaster," she continues.
For National Heart Awareness Month in February, Intermountain Healthcare is raising awareness about the effects of COVID-19 pandemic stress on women's heart health, and what can be done about it.
Cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 killer of women – and too many women, particularly young women, remain unaware. Heart disease claims the lives of 1 in 3 women – that's about one woman every 80 seconds.
A December study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who felt more stressed at their jobs, in their roles as caregivers, mothers, and spouses, had greater chances of developing high blood pressure, gaining weight, and eating a less healthy diet, all factors that contribute to poorer heart health.
While COVID-19 stress affects both genders, women, particularly caregivers, have been less likely to engage in activities proven to alleviate the stress itself. Many have been caught in a pandemic stress cycle that's now entering its second year. "Most of us know what to do about stress: we should exercise, reach out to friends, and stick to a healthy diet," said Petersen.
Women need to give themselves permission to take time for self-care whether that's doing yoga, taking a bubble bath or even getting a pedicure.
Mindfulness practices can reduce stress, but so can the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal and listing a few things to be grateful for each day.
These small changes can lead to bigger ones, as stress levels lower and make doing things like sleeping, having time and energy to exercise, and making better food easier to do, which in turn starts a different kind of cycle: creating a healthier body and therefore better heart health," Petersen noted.
If you'd like more information visit intermountainhealthcare.org.