Do men and women have different reactions to stress, biologically and psychologically? If so, does how does this affect their health and longevity?
Stress and the body
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to good and bad events. It causes a surge of hormones, which helps you to mobilize a lot of energy quickly to deal with a potentially difficult/dangerous situation. This is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. One of the most important hormones which is released in response to fear or stress is cortisol.
This response and elevated cortisol isn’t necessarily bad for you in the short term. In fact the heightened heart and respiratory rates which occur are essential to help you react to situations, such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. Long term, however, they can have a negative impact.
How do the sexes differ in their biological response?
Men and women both initially react to a stressful situation with the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. However, their ongoing responses differ due to their biology. In response to the rush of hormones that the body produces to combat stress, men and women produce other, different hormones to counteract their effects:
- Women produce more oxytocin than men in this situation. Oxytocin is known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ and research has shown it calms the body and encourages social interaction. Coupled with the reproductive hormone estrogen this induces relaxation - promoting the need to ‘tend-and-befriend’.
- Men produce a lower level of oxytocin. They also release vasopressin - a similar hormone but one that is associated with aggression. Coupled with the hormone testosterone, which promotes a sense of separateness, aggression and risk-taking – men are more prone to ignore stress. This can cause the ‘fight-and -flight’ response to continue. Research has also suggested that a particular gene, located in the Y chromosome that directs male development, contributes to the aggressive male response to stress.
- Research published in 2014 suggested that the different production and responses to oxytocin and vasopressin contribute to different emotional stress responses by the sexes.
How the sexes react to stress
The American Psychological Association reports that men and women admit to very different ways of dealing with stress. For example:
- Women are more likely than men to admit that they are stressed and seek practical help to deal with it.
- Married women seem to be more stressed and less able to cope in comparison to single women, who feel they manage their stress effectively.
Women are more likely to experience work-related stress. One of the main causes of this problem is that women are usually still performing traditional roles at home while pursuing full time careers. Research published in 2019 showed that biological markers for chronic stress are 40% higher in women bringing up two children while working full time.
Some sources suggest:
- Women want to talk about their problems, whereas men are more likely to ignore the stress.
- Men are reportedly more likely to rely on alcohol, caffeine and nicotine than women to get them through a difficult time, most of which have well-known complications.
- However, men take more exercise in comparison to women during stressful events. While women admit that they do not exercise as much and tend to eat more, and unhealthily, when stressed.
Research from the 1990’s suggested men were more likely to take a problem solving approach. Where successful this could remove the source of stress and thus be a useful response. However, we have only found one study since then which identifies a greater problem solving approach among men.
Research published in 2012 suggested the way we perceive stress also plays a big role in its long term effects. It seems that people who think stress plays a big role in their health and who also report that they are under large amount of stress have an increased risk of premature death. This suggests that changing our perception of a stressful event may reduce the risk of long term health consequences.
Effects of stress
How you manage stress can affect your health and longevity.
- A small study suggested that men and women’s brains react differently when stressed. Women respond with increased activity in the brain regions involved with emotion and these changes last longer than in men. This prolonged period is thought to contribute to women’s higher rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men.
- A man’s need to be ‘strong and silent’ may create its own long-term psychological difficulties when faced with how to deal with difficult situations, such as ongoing stress.
- Stress can increase the risk of a range of health issues, such as heart disease, metabolic disorders, impaired immune system, eczema, back problems and in some cases type-2 diabetes.
How can we manage stress or prevent it in the first place?
We can take the best strategies from both sexes e.g.
- See if you can identify and remove whatever is causing the stress.
- Admit you are feeling stressed. Be prepared to talk about it and seek help.
- Find healthy ways of de-stressing, like exercise, music or spending time with friends – instead of smoking, drinking or eating comfort food.
- Meditation can also help with stress. It is simple and inexpensive, and doesn't need to be very time consuming. Currently, there is a big range of meditation phone apps available.
You can find more suggestion for managing stress in our article on Coping with Stress.
- Biologically men and women initially react to stress in the same way. However, different hormones in the sexes seem to affect how the stress then manifests itself.
- Women are more likely to admit to and seek help and emotional support from their network of friends when stressed (‘tend-and-befriend’), while men are more prone to bottling up their emotions and to seek more physical releases of their stress, for instance through exercise (‘fight-and-flight’).
- To reduce vulnerability to the range of health issues that long-term stress can cause then seeking help, removing the cause of stress, exercise and meditation are all recommended – rather than turning to alcohol, cigarettes or food for comfort.
Reviewed and updated March 2020