Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

Women, Men and Stress

Just in case you missed the memo, men and women are different.

Now, after compiling data from thousands of biological and behavioral studies of humans and animals, UCLA researchers have identified a broad pattern that describes yet another important difference between the sexes…how they manage stress. Not only are their behavioral differences, these differences appear to have their roots in biology.

Flight or Fight...Universal?

I was recently interviewed by a newspaper reporter who was doing a series on police chases. She wanted me to comment on “the psychology of the police chase”…e.g., what happens to the officer who is involved in a chase. (The series was precipitated by an alleged incident of poor judgment on the part of a patrolman in such a situation.)

I discussed the impact of the well-known “fight or flight syndrome.” This paradigm has prevailed in the stress literature for over 60 years. If you think back to your last extremely stressful crisis, I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the symptoms I described to the reporter.

In the Fight or Flight response, a series of nerve cell firings and chemical releases prepares the body for fight or flight. Blood is directed away from the digestive tract and toward the muscles and limbs. Pupils dilate, sight is sharpened, and awareness is intensified. The person becomes prepared, physically and psychologically, for fight or flight.

In addition, the individual’s perception changes as the environment is scanned and searched for “the enemy.” The rational mind is bypassed and there is a move into “attack mode.” Everything tends to be perceived as a threat. Think about the behavior of an airport security person during a terrorist threat, on the lookout for every possible danger. Fear is exaggerated and the individual may overreact to the slightest move or comment. Focus is narrowed to things that could possibly harm.

In summary, the body goes into alarm mode, preparing to aggressively confront or run from/avoid the danger.

You’ve been there. I have, too.

But does this widely-accepted model present a complete picture of the stress response? The ground-breaking UCLA studies suggest that it does not. In fact, there may be some biologically-based gender differences that help to explain some of the struggles men and women experience when trying to relate with each other in stressful times.

Psychologist Dr. Shelley Taylor and her UCLA colleagues discovered that almost all the stress studies have been conducted on males (only 17% had women in them)…upholding fight-or-flight as the main response to stress. However, when they began to re-examine existing evidence from research with animals, neuroendocrine studies, and human-based social psychology, they found a different pattern for females.

Tend and Befriend

Females respond to stressful situations by protecting themselves (and their young) through nurturing behaviors (‘tending”), and by friendship, forming alliances with a larger social group (“befriending”). In other words, the traditional “fight-or-flight” explanation may be inaccurate when it comes to women.

Let me describe the female’s physiological response to stress. The female brain’s attachment/caregiving system counteracts the metabolic activity associated with the traditional fight-or-flight response. In other words, though females show the same immediate hormonal and sympathetic nervous system response to acute stress, other physical factors intervene to make fight-or-flight less likely in women.

Animal studies show that, under stress, oxytocin is released, enhancing relaxation and reducing fearfulness. Further, animal and human studies show that oxytocin promotes caregiving behavior and underlies attachment between mothers and infants. In addition, some studies have found that mothers under the most stress tend to become more nurturing and caring toward their children.

Taylor explained, “Men secrete oxytocin too, but the effects of oxytocin seem to be reduced by male hormones, so oxytocin may have reduced effects on men’s physiology and behavior under stress. Women, lacking dominant amounts of testosterone, generally have higher levels of oxytocin than men.

Research also shows that, when they are stressed, females tend to prefer being with others, especially other females, whereas males don’t. Women are more likely to seek out and use social support in all kinds of stressful situations, like health, work, and relationship concerns. Injections of oxytocin produce the same behaviors in males, but males are less likely to have naturally occurring high levels of oxytocin.

Implications Of These Findings

In a May 2000 New York Times article entitled, “Scientists Find a Particularly Female Response to Stress,” Erica Goode reported that the differences in how men and women respond to stress may shed some light on why men suffer more from stress-related illnesses and effects such as hypertension and alcohol and drug abuse.

Others have suggested that, given the powerful link between poorly managed stress and the development and/or worsening of all kinds of physical ailments, these findings on gender differences may help to explain why women generally outlive men. The UCLA researchers say that strong social ties and the ability to cope with stress may prolong one’s life and reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.

Professor Marc Cohen, Head of the Department of Complementary Medicine at RMIT, said isolation and depression were just as important risk factors for heart disease as smoking, obesity, and diabetes. He added, “Social intimacy is very important as a way of offsetting the negative effects of stress. One of the things that women tend to do is pop on the phone and chat to people about it, whereas men tend to be more reserved when it comes to their feelings. Men tend to get on the defensive, or they flee or retreat into their cave and they don’t tend to be as forthcoming about what’s bothering them.

Cultural Message

Social conditioning also plays a big part in these differences. Girls from a young age learn to talk about what’s bothering them. On the other hand, males tend to hear messages like…

  • Big boys don’t cry…
  • Be a man about it…
  • Never let ‘em see you sweat…
  • Real men don’t ___ (fill in the blank…
  • I don’t get ulcers…I give them!”

Could it be true that we’ve done males a huge disservice, robbing them of societal permission to use valuable coping strategies that can make them healthier…emotionally, relationally, and physically?

Other Stress-Related Gender Factoids

Exercise seems to benefit heart health more for women than men. Research at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago found that, in women, every one-point increase in fitness level resulted in a 17-percent decrease in overall risk of death over the next eight years. For men, only about an 8 percent decrease in deaths resulted from roughly the same level of fitness improvement.

Work is a bigger source of stress for men (48 percent) than women (32 percent). (National Consumers League 2003 study)

Family is a greater source of stress among women than men (37 percent vs. 21 percent). (National Consumers League 2003 study)

Women are more sensitive to negative marital interactions than men, according to an Ohio State University study by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychology, and her husband, Ronald Glaser. When married couples were asked to spend 30 videotaped and physically-monitored minutes discussing an area of disagreement, women showed a faster and more enduring response to hostility. Women’s stress hormones rose more sharply and stayed up longer than men’s. Women also showed a lowering of certain aspects of immune function.

In a follow-up study, the Ohio team found that women whose stress hormones had risen the highest during the earlier phase of the study were the most likely to get divorced. The researchers said that this could not be chalked up to over-reacting, or to some female hypersensitivity to stress in general because in other non-relational situations designed to induce stress in the lab, men showed larger increases in stress than women. In other words, in a marriage, women are actually more accurate judges of what’s going on emotionally. It appears, then, that relationships can be both a stress buffer and a stress-maker for women.

Is Gender Destiny?

No, we are discussing tendencies, not absolutes. There is wide variability among individuals of both sexes. And, as you can see from the studies I’ve cited, the impact of various responses can be mixed.

Here’s the bottom line…

All humans, male and female, have the task of using their natural strengths, as well as learning other responses that may be more effective in various contexts. You can learn stress-relieving skills and gain comfort with them as you practice them in emotionally safe environments.

You don’t have to “go with the gut.” No matter what your gender, you can stop, think, and choose.

Your body, your mind, your emotions, and the people you love will thank you for it.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blog, Shrink Rap.

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