by Tina Coleman As most couples are aware, men and women respond differently to stress. What hasn't been clear until now is how or why. Our understanding of the human stress response has been based on the "fight-or-flight" model, which states that when confronted with a stressful situation, humans either will respond with aggressive behavior or will withdraw. What About the Women? Studies of stress response conducted prior to 1995 corroborated the "fight-or-flight" theory. These studies focused heavily on male subjects because researchers believed that a woman's monthly hormonal fluctuations created stress responses that were too varied to be statistically valid. But in 1995, the federal government mandated representation of both men and women in agency-funded studies. As a result, the percentage of female subjects participating in stress research increased. Studying Women Reveals a Different Stress Response A study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review offers clues to the biological and behavioral differences in the ways men and women cope with stress. The study found that females of many species, including humans, respond to stressful situations by protecting and nurturing their young and by seeking social contact and support from others, particularly females. The study refers to this response as "tend-and-befriend."
Researchers believe this response is a result of natural selection. "Thousands of generations ago, fleeing or fighting in stressful situations was not a good option for a female who was pregnant or taking care of offspring, and women who developed and maintained social alliances were better able to care for multiple offspring in stressful times," says the study's principal investigator Shelley E. Taylor. Biology May Favor Females As with the fight-or-flight response common in males, this tend-and-befriend response to stress may have a biological basis. The hormone oxytocin, which is secreted by both males and females in response to stress, is believed to play a role. "Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer, more relaxed, more social, and less anxious," says Taylor. In males, the effects of oxytocin seem to be reduced by male hormones, but in females, she says, oxytocinalong with other stress hormonesmay play a key factor in reducing the female response to stress. Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension , aggressive behavior, or abuse of alcohol , or hard drugs, Taylor says, while the tend-and-befriend response may protect women against stress.
But in Some Circumstances, Women Are At Higher Risk Doctors have recognized a condition that they have memorably called broken heart syndrome. In this probably rare condition, acute stress such as news of a loved ones death leads to sudden onset of chest pain, heart failure , or even sudden death. While broken heart syndrome does occur in men, 95% of the persons studied in a February 2005 New England Journal of Medicine study on this syndome were women. Broken heart syndrome reflects the important connection between our brain and our heart. In this case the stress hormone responses work against women, making them more susceptible to serious consequences of extreme stress. Notably, two of the women reported with broken heart syndrome in the New England Journal of Medicine study developed symptoms after strong pleasant surprises. It is likely that even sudden good stress can lead to bad outcomes in susceptible persons. At present we dont really know how to predict broken heart syndrome, although it has been reported most commonly in women over age 45. What Do You Do When You're Stressed? In a study prepared for the Assistant Secretary of Defense by the Research Triangle Institute in 1998, researchers looked into the mental health effects of stress on active-duty military personnel. The study found that more men (24.6%) than women (15.5%) reported using alcohol as a coping behavior. Women were more likely than men to talk to a friend or family member (87.1% versus 70.8%, respectively). Men were found to be more likely to light up a cigarette, while women were more likely to pray. Women were also more likely to eat in response to stress, while men were more likely to turn to illegal drugs.
The results of the UCLA study may help explain such things as why men are reluctant to ask for directions when lost, why men are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of stress, and why women enjoy a significantly longer life expectancy than men do.
"For men it would suggest that reaching out is beneficialprotective, evenin times of stress," says Richard Driscoll, PhD, author of The Stronger Sex . "But for hundreds of thousands of years, men who revealed their weaknesses tended to be undesirable mates. Hiding weaknesses has been biologically advantageous, and men still tend to be less likely to reveal weaknesses."
This reluctance on the part of men to reach out, Dr. Driscoll believes, could help explain the difference in life expectancy between the genders.
"Women get more medical care; they consume two out of three healthcare dollars. They are more likely to seek help from therapists. Men don't get the healthcare; they tend not to reach out."
"Men have very strong tendencies to conceal stressful things," Dr. Driscoll adds. But our society is designed that way. Crying is still not acceptable in men, he points out. "We have to have a softer, gentler, more sympathetic approach to men, particularly those who aren't at the top of their game," says Dr. Driscoll. We need to acknowledge to young sons the particular difficulties that they will face being a boy and a man in an unsympathetic world, he explains.
Men need to learn to deal with stress in a healthy manner, says Dr. Driscoll. He recommends a process he developed called "mental shielding" to brush off hostility. Mental shielding involves developing the ability to disengage from hostile comments and remain in control, first by achieving a calm, relaxed state, and then creating a mental shield between yourself and your partner. This deflects the hostility and allows you to better deal with the core issues. RESOURCES: The American Institute of Stress http://www.stress.org National Mental Health Association http://www.nmha.org References: Highlights: 1998 Department of Defense survey of health related behaviors among military personnel. Tricare website. Available at: http://www.tricare.osd.mil/ . Taylor SE. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or flight. Psychological Review . 2000 July. Wittstein IS, Thiemann DR, Lima JA, et al. Neurohumoral features of myocardial stunning due to sudden emotional stress. N Engl J Med . 2005;352:53948.
Last reviewed October 2006 by Jill Landis, MD Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.