Gender Differences in Responses to Stress

… According to some psychologists, there is basic difference in the way men and women respond to social stress: for men, it’s either “fight or flight” while for women it’s “tend and befriend.” Physiologist Walter Cannon – a pioneer of research on stress – argued in the 1930s that “fight-or-flight” is a universal physiological response to stress shown not only by all humans, but by animals as well.  This response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system – the part of our nervous system that deals with automatic functions such as breathing. Under stress, this system is activated, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, hastening breathing, and otherwise readying you to face down your enemy or to run. Thousands of studies inspired by Cannon described and documented this response in a variety of species and situations. The vast majority of these studies, however, were conducted with males.

In 2000, UCLA social psychologist Shelley Taylor and her colleagues wrote an influential article in Psychological Review, which Taylor later expanded into a book called The Tending Instinct, to propose that when it comes to stress, women are different from men. Instead of getting ready to fight or to flee, women become more likely to express affiliative social behavior, either to befriend the enemy – if there is an enemy and is causing the stress – or to seek social support from their family members or friends. Physiologically, instead of releasing large amounts of norepinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream the way men do, Taylor argued that women respond to stress by secreting more endorphins – neurochemical substances that help alleviate pain and make us feel good about social interactions – and oxytocin, a neurohormone that is linked to the motivation to behave in a friendly manner to children or close social partners.

In support of Taylor’s hypothesis, I can tell you from experience that if you put two adult male rhesus monkeys who have never met before in a small cage, they will fight and try to kill each other. In contrast, if you put two females in a cage, they will reduce the tension and awkwardness of the situation by exchanging grooming behavior (grooming is the main form of affiliation in monkeys and is known to cause a release of endorphins and to reduce stress in the receiver – not unlike receiving a body massage from your favorite masseuse)….

It seems these differences are related to differences in external vs internal functions in maintaining the family unit.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.