Does Stress Affect Women & Men Differently?

By Stephanie Sullivan

We all have experienced stress, and most people are familiar with the characteristic “fight or flight” response to stress. There are physical similarities in how both genders experience stress, such as shallow or held breathing, increased heart rate and 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, scientists 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.

We know our hormones are different, but could stress actually trigger different reactions in the brain of a man and a woman?

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 and 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 avoidance3 as well as vigilance4 and anxiety.4

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.

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 maximise 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

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