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Why Women Handle Stress Differently Than Men
Instead of "fight or flight", women under stress "tend and befriend". Learn why.

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Why Women Handle Stress Differently Than Men

It's been a bad day. A really bad day. So, what do you do? Talk it all out with a good friend or bottle it up inside? The answer has a lot to do with your gender.

It turns out that in general, women cope with stress differently than men. When women are stressed, they seek emotional support from family and friends. They also nurture those close to them. Researchers have coined a name for this behavior pattern: "tend and befriend".

The classic stress response model is "fight or flight". It's a holdover from our cave-dwelling days when we had to deal with deadly predators. When faced with danger such as an angry bear, you could either stand and fight or try to escape. To enable these responses, the body releases stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. They cause your muscles to tense, your heart to speed up and your senses to become sharper.

Our brains are still wired in such a way that today's stressors cause the same physical reactions. When stress looms for a woman, though, she is likely to seek and give emotional support. Researchers say this, too, is a holdover from humanity's early days. If a hungry lion was threatening a mom, she couldn't run. She had to protect her children, so she would gather them up, calm them and try to get them out of harm's way. Women may also have sought to be part of a larger group of women because group life offered greater protection from predators.

This primitive function in women's brains is still active today. Women respond to stress by protecting themselves and their loved ones through nurturing behaviors -- the "tend" part. They also form alliances with a larger social group, especially other women -- the "befriend" part.

The stress hormones
The key to this response seems to lie in the endocrine system. When under stress, a woman's body releases the stress hormones that key the body up for fight or flight. But she also produces a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is connected with loving feelings toward another, breast-feeding and maternal feelings. It enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness and lowers stress responses.

The female hormone estrogen amplifies the calming effects of oxytocin. This hormonal response in women actually counteracts the body's fight-or-flight response.

Men also produce oxytocin but in smaller amounts, and male hormones lessen its effects. Men are more likely to fight or flee a stressful situation.

Thanks to these complex hormone responses, women, in effect, use relationships as a tool to manage stress. A woman who is in the midst of a crisis is much more likely than a man to phone her sibling or get together with a friend. Women create social alliances that provide a framework of support they can lean on during bad times.
By Lila Havens, Contributing Writer
Created on 10/19/2004
Updated on 06/11/2012
  • Taylor SE, Klein LC, Lewis BP, Gruenewald TL, Gurung RAR, Updegraff JA. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Understanding stress.
  • DeAngelis T. The two faces of oxytocin. Monitor on Psychology. 2008;39(2):30-33.
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