Stress and gender

This article explores whether men and women have different reactions to stress, biologically and psychologically, how their reactions affect their health and longevity, and how we can manage stress? 

  • Stress and the body
  • How do the sexes differ in their biological response to stress?
  • How the sexes react to stress
  • The effects of stress
  • How can we manage stress or prevent it in the first place?
  • Conclusions


Stress and the body


It causes a surge of hormones, which helps you to mobilise a lot of energy quickly to deal with a potentially difficult/dangerous situation. This reaction is known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.


One of the most important hormones released in response to fear or stress is cortisol. This elevated level of cortisol isn’t necessarily bad for you in the short term. In fact, the heightened heart and respiratory rates that result are essential to help you react to situations, such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. Long term, however, these physiological responses can also have a negative impact.

(A fourth possible response to difficult/dangerous situations is known as the ‘fawn’ response, in which a person tries to avoid any conflict by submitting to the situation.)

How do the sexes differ in their biological response to stress?

Initially, men and women both react to a stressful situation with the same ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ 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 each then produce different hormones which change their behaviour in different ways: 

Women produce more oxytocin than men in this situation.

Oxytocin is known as the ‘cuddle hormone’.

Research has shown oxytocin calms the body and encourages social interaction. Coupled with the reproductive hormone estrogen this induces relaxation and promotes the need to ‘tend-and-befriend’.

Men produce lower levels of oxytocin. They also release vasopressin – a similar hormone but one that is associated with aggression.

Vasopressin, coupled with the hormone testosterone, promotes a sense of separateness, aggression and risk-taking.

This can cause the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ 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 suggests that the different production of, 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 dealing with stress in very different ways. 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.
  • Men are more prone to ignore stress.

Stress in the workplace

In a 2023 study of stressors in the workplace, there was little empirical support for different responses to stressors between men and women, and that any gender differences in exposure to, and experience of, stress were inconsistent.

Stress outside the workplace

However, stressors outside work should also be considered. Women usually still perform traditional roles at home while pursuing full-time careers. Research published in 2019 showed that biological markers – including blood pressure and hormone levels – for chronic stress are 40% higher in women bringing up two children while working full time.

The Covid pandemic 

A Canadian study, which considered the impact of the Covid pandemic on stress, depression and anxiety, concluded that, ‘At the beginning of the pandemic, females with high femininity had more stress symptoms than males with high femininity’

Some sources suggest:

  • Women want to talk about their problems, whereas men are more likely to ignore the stress.
  • Men are reportedly more likely than women to rely on alcohol, caffeine and nicotine to get them through a difficult time. Most of these stimulants have well-known complications.
  • However, men take more exercise than women during stressful events. Women admit that they do not exercise as much as men and tend to eat more – and less healthily – when stressed.


Research from the 1990s suggests that men are more likely than women to take a problem solving approach, while women reported seeking social support and using emotion-focused coping to a greater extent than men.

When a problem-solving approach was successful, it could have removed the source of stress and thus problem-solving might be a useful response to stress. However, we have only found one study since then which identifies a greater problem solving approach among men.

Individuals’ perceptions of stress

Research published in 2012 suggests that the way we perceive stress also plays a big role in its long term effects. It seems that people who think that 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.


Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had a 43% increased risk of premature death.

Health Psychology



The 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 of brain activity is thought to contribute to women’s higher rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared with men.
  • A man’s need to be ‘strong and silent’ may create its own long-term psychological difficulties when he is faced with how to deal with difficult situations such as ongoing stress.
  • Stress can increase the risk of a range of health issues. These include 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 managing strategies from both sexes:

Identify the source of the stress.

Try to remove whatever is causing the stress.

Admit that you are feeling stressed.

Be prepared to talk to others about your stress and seek help.

Find healthy ways of de-stressing.

Instead of smoking, drinking or eating comfort food, do plenty of exercise, listen to music, or spend time with friends.

Meditation can also help with stress.

Meditating is simple and inexpensive, and it doesn't need to be very time-consuming.

There are many meditation apps available that can help you.



You can find more suggestion for managing stress in our article on Coping with Chronic 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 seeking 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, rather than turning to alcohol, cigarettes or food for comfort, seeking help, removing the cause of the stress, exercising, and meditating are all recommended.

Reviewed and updated by Elisa Knebel. November 2023. Next Review date October 2027.