It’s no revelation that men and women are affected by stress differently and therefore responses are different too. Is it down to genetics? Is it biological? Is it just testosterone? Or is it societal pressure?
In this article, featuring Dario Maestripieri Ph.D., a Psychology Today contributor, we take a look over the most comprehensive studies of recent times along with expert opinions to give you a greater understanding of why men and women respond differently to stress.
So what is stress exactly?
According to the Stress Management Society, stress is primarily a physical response to a threat.
That physical response is usually from pressures from stimuli that can be imparted upon someone internally or externally. When under stress, the body switches into what’s commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ mode and the stress responses are reactionary to either of those, depending on the situation.
The stress response is actioned by the body releasing hormones and chemicals like adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin that prepare the body for what’s to come.
Importantly, under stress, the body prioritises the most necessary bodily functions and shuts down those deemed unnecessary at the time, such as digestion. Some of the primary hormones active under stress suppress appetite therefore decreasing the sense of hunger. People who are under persistent stress or those affected by constant anxiety may be more likely to have chronic elevations of these hormones, resulting in prolonged appetite suppression.
The difference between stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are often linked and can contribute to deeper periods of depression too.
- Stress » 3 in 4 people have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope with stress (MHF)
Generally a short-term experience, stress is the body’s reaction to an external threat. Stress is often periodical and triggered by short-term stimuli and can also be perceived positively by producing a more focused mental state. Long-term stress, however, can result in insomnia, poorer concentration, and ability impairment of tasks that, under normal circumstances, would be completed easily.
- Anxiety » 1 in 10 people will experience debilitating anxiety in their life (Anxiety UK)
A sustained mental health problem, that’s often triggered by stress, anxiety doesn’t always subside once the threat has been dealt with. Anxiety is something that has to be managed by someone for longer periods of time than stress, usually. The effect of anxiety on someone can be significant, depending on the severity and the person themselves, socially is where it hits most but it can also affect the individual occupationally and areas of function that would otherwise be easy to do.
- Depression » 1 in 10 people are reported to have depression in the UK (Independent)
Being of a low or flat feeling mood for long periods of time, so much so, that feeling affects everyday life. Symptoms of depression include low self-esteem, self-hate, constant worrying, anxiety, tiredness, frustration and sadness. Mildly, depression doesn’t stop leading a normal life but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most serious, depression is life-threatening due to the incessant self-hatred thoughts that can lead to suicidal thoughts or the will to give up living life.
It’s the length of time that differentiates
- Stress is typically shorter: threat > reaction > solution.
- Anxiety is typically longer term and doesn’t subside as quickly as dealing with a stressful situation.
- Chronic stress can lead to anxiety which if not dealt with can lead to longer term depression.
How do men react to stress?
Men, historically, compartmentalise and repress their emotions to either fight or flight (run from danger). It would be fair to say that, naturally, men are more likely than women to respond to stress with anger, aggression, escaping or hiding, or an alternative method that relates to an immediate reaction. Now this is directly linked to the biological makeup of males and the chemical reactions that happen under stress, but this can also be seen as a societal pressure that men are the strong ones in the household and emotion shouldn’t be shared. More on this topic soon.
Biologically speaking, men naturally release less oxytocin than women, which softens the reaction of cortisol by relaxing the emotions, so therefore have a stronger reaction of adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine which raises the blood pressure causing a more immediate (short-lived) response.
How do women react to stress?
Due to the increase in oxytocin and reproductive hormones, such as oestrogen, women will naturally nurture and reach out to others in an effort to both protect themselves and their young. Women have to focus on relationships. This is backed up by female self-esteem and identity are both dependent upon feelings of adequacy in relationships.
Comparatively, men are more interested in personal performance and how well they’re competing. Instinctively, they won’t interpret social cues as well as women, so when a man says, “I didn’t know you were angry” to a woman, even though you might have made it clear you were, he’s probably telling the truth.
The key differences between the two
Stress reactions are driven by hormones in both men and women. The main hormones: adrenaline cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin aren’t produced in equal measures – and this is, essentially, why men and women react differently to stress.
Several studies (notably the Journal of Counseling & Development and Clinical Psychology Review 11) have concluded that it’s social expectations that affect how we react to stress and their imparted psychological effects. Consequently, men and women are exposed to different types of stress and deal with that stress based on cultural norms.
This type of restrictiveness of gender roles can have negative implications, especially bias towards females, as women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem.