Women’s Emotions: Part 1
The 3 Components of Emotional Health
Years back, when I was in graduate school, I sat in my therapist’s office (yes, I’ve been in therapy; every good psychologist has!) and asked her, “Why am I so complicated?” I’d been frustrated by my constantly shifting emotions, and comparing myself to my even-keel husband only made me feel worse! I was already a wife, mother, and college graduate—shouldn’t I have known by then how to understand my own moods?
My psychologist didn’t have the answers either but she did reassure me. “You’re not complicated,” she explained. “You’re complex.” Over the years I learned that she was right—I’m not as “complicated” as I believed, but my thoughts and emotions can seem pretty “complex” at times. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you might have times when your “complexity” feels downright “crazy”. Can anyone relate?
It’s true that female emotional health is, overall, pretty complex. But at the core level, our overall sense of well-being is actually created out of a simple relationship between three complex components: life stress, the brain, and hormones. Today I hope to shed a little light on these three components of emotional health.
1) Life Stress & Experiences:
Research shows that women have much higher rates of life stress than men, overall, including poverty, domestic violence, and caretaking responsibilities¹. We all know the emotional toll that stress can take but did you know that your life experiences also have an impact on your brain chemistry? Male or female, every trauma, loss, or hurt we go through alters the chemistry of the brain so that we literally have a different brain today than we had years, or even a year, ago.
2) The Female Brain:
Your brain is the core of your emotions. This is true for men and women. Emotion originates in the area of the brain called the limbic system and is monitored and regulated by the front of the brain, called the cortex. I did my last internship in neuropsychology, studying the brain, and let me tell you: the brain, in general, is incredible. But the female brain is simply fascinating. Research shows that even as babies females are wired for empathy, hearing others, being heard, observation and reading emotion². In other words, females are born for connection. This makes us want to get to know, nurture, tend, and love others and is arguably one of the best qualities of women overall.
But it’s that same caring nature that can contribute to the higher rates of life stress in women: we simply take on too much and don’t give ourselves a break. When the brain is loaded with stress it begins to look like a seesaw with both ends weighed down. If we continue to load both sides that seesaw will eventually snap! and we will experience depression, anxiety, or just plain burnout. This is called allostatic loading and it happens all the time because we simply don’t do a very good job of taking care of our brains. Understanding the link between life stress and the brain can give us the motivation we need to care for our precious emotional core.
Your hormones are directly linked to your brain chemistry. Estrogen is, in fact, a pre-curser to the neurotransmitters, like Seratonin, in your brain that make you feel “well”. Estrogen helps maintain a steady flow of serotonin; too little serotonin leads to depression. When the menstrual cycle comes along—with an increase in estrogen the first two weeks followed by a drop on day 14, and another drop the week before your period—these shifts in estrogen produce changes in the brain that can create symptoms similar to depression or anxiety³. And some women are more sensitive to shifts in hormones than others.
Learning about these three components, it finally all made sense to me. My brain is the core of my emotions; my life stressors affect my brain; changes in hormones also affect my brain and can cause even more life stress. “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?” kept repeating in my mind. Understanding the three components of female emotional health opens the door to minimizing stress, caring for our precious brains, and giving ourselves a break the couple of times a month when all three components are scheming against us.
This is just the beginning to understanding our own emotional health, but I hope it helps you see there’s more to your emotions than meets the eye. The more we learn about the fascinating female brain and body, the greater the opportunity to taking charge of our emotional health. The more we heed the wisdom that our bodies hold, the more we can appreciate the complexity, simplicity, and fascination of being a female.
Can you relate to feeling “complicated” or “complex”? Did you know these things about your body and brain? What have you learned that has helped you manage your emotional health better? Leave us a comment and share!
Also, subscribe to my newsletter (see form above, right) and “like” me on Facebook to learn more about this topic in my continuing series, “Women’s Emotions”!
¹American Psychiatric Association. (2009). Women’s Mental Health Issue Paper.
²Brizendine, L. (2006). The Female Brain. Broadway Books; New York, NY.
³Sichel, D. & Driscoll, J.W. (1999). Women’s Moods: What every woman must know about hormones, the brain, and emotional health. Harper Collins, New York, NY.