Does Stress Affect Women & Men Differently?
We all have experienced stress, and most people are familiar with the characteristic “flight or fight” response to stress. There are also physical similarities in how both genders experience stress, such as shallow or held breathing, increased heart rate, tense muscles. Would it surprise you if there were also significant differences in how stress affects the male and female body? Well, come to find out, we do not experience the physiologic effects of stress in exactly the same way. On the surface this may not surprise you, but most likely you will be surprised at the extent to which there are differences in the way that the female and male bodies respond differently to the same stress.
In fact, researchers have found that “gender is an important biological determinant of vulnerability to psychosocial stress.”(1) This is not only intriguing, but it may help you understand some differences in the way you and your partner respond differently to the same situation, confrontation, or disagreement. Have you ever been in the situation where following a disagreement the woman wants to come back together to talk things over and resolve or “make-up”, but the man just wants to retreat away into a quiet space, or doesn’t want to talk about it? Have you thought that it was just your personal relationship dynamic? Well, it turns out there may be some biology or physiology behind it.
There is a direct relationship between stress and our hormones (e.g., cortisol, adrenaline), and also a complex interrelationship between all of the other various hormones and systems in our body. Given that there are significant differences in hormones in the male and female body, it stands to reason that our bodies physiologically could react and respond to the same stressful events in quite different ways. Stack on top of that, the entrenched societal evolutionary differences between the stereotypical male and female roles (e.g., cavemen faced predators and had to fight & kill or flee for survival, while women nurtured the children and tribe/community for cohesion, and to maximise survival through difficult times).
We know our hormones are different, but could stress actually trigger different reactions in the brain of a man and a woman? What may really surprise you is that a study exposing men and women to the same mild to moderate-level of psychological stress revealed activity occurring in completely different areas of the brain for men and women.(1) The study found that a woman’s response tends to be more in the limbic system, whereas there was no response in this area for men. The limbic system is also known as the “rewards system”, and includes receptors for oxytocin (the love/connection hormone), dopamine (the happy / feel good hormone), and others. The man’s response is more in the right prefrontal region, whereas there was no response in this area for the women. The prefrontal cortex is involved in many high-order cognitive processes such as decision making and reasoning (2), and the right side is involved in bringing about negative emotions (3), avoidance (3) as well as vigilance (4) and anxiety (4). The research study explains that activation of the limbic system in women “is more consistent with a ‘tend-and-befriend’ rather than a ‘fight-or-flight’ model….[which] might indicate an intrinsic neurobiological mechanism of the female brain to activate the reward system under stress, thereby down-regulating the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.” (1)
"Females respond to stress by nurturing offspring and affiliating with social groups that maximize the survival of the species in times of adversity…the female stress response may specifically build on attachment–caregiving processes (especially those mediated by oxytocin)…” (1)
The study also found that the while there was no clear distinction in task performance by the men and women, the men reported a greater acute response in their perceived stress compared to women.
My interpretation of this is that when a woman faces moderate psychological stress, she may likely reach out to loved ones seeking that “feel good” oxytocin and/or endorphin hit (from love and bonding). Possibly this makes her more inclined to reach out to her partner, or else a close friend or family member, to talk things through; whereas a man may feel more negative emotions, and given that he is more naturally inclined to either “fight or flight”, he may likely choose to flee or retreat to a quiet place, perhaps also as a learned coping mechanism to mitigate the alternative “fight” response (i.e., he needs to retreat to stay calm, collect his thoughts, and decide how to proceed). Based on the areas of the brain triggered, the man could also feel a strong desire to “problem solve” and reason; whereas the woman’s strong desire may be to feel good / better again.
This knowledge is not only helpful to better understand relationship dynamics, but as the study explains, also to potentially uncover gender-specific risk factors for stress related health problems/consequences in men versus women.
If you would like to learn even more about stress, the effects it has on your body and health, and most importantly how to effectively reduce and better manage the stress in your life, Elevate Your Life Coaching offers a short course/program called Master Your Stress. Your coach provides you with personalised support and guides you in taking immediate actions, as well as developing a personalised stress management plan to help elevate your resilience and effectiveness at work and home. Simply contact us for more information on this offering, or schedule a free chat here.
Note: This article will soon be published with Australia's Natural Parent Magazine here: Search Results for “stephanie sullivan” – The Natural Parent Magazine.
1 Jiongjiong Wang, Marc Korczykowski, Hengyi Rao, Yong Fan, John Pluta, Ruben C. Gur, Bruce S. McEwen, John A. Detre, Gender difference in neural response to psychological stress, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 2, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 227–239, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsm018
2 Roberto Grujičić MD • Reviewer: Dimitrios Mytilinaios MD, PhD; Last reviewed: March 20, 2022. https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/prefrontal-cortex