Gender differences in responding to stress

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giving_hug_pc_1600_wht_3332A recent blog post from Psyblog piqued my interest. It referred to the research by Tomova et al published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The researchers thought that stress would make everyone self-centred because when we’re stressed we don’t have the cognitive resources to think of others.

In other words when we’re stressed we become more egocentric and only think of ourselves. This reduces the cognitive load and we would be expected to be less empathetic.

But this was only true for men not women.

The experiments required the participants to judge others’ emotions, try to think from another person’s perspective, and try to imitate body movements.

Men performed these things worse when put under stress.  The opposite was true of women.

The authors , Lamm and Silami were unable to explain the reasons for the different outcomes. They thought women mighty internalise social support and have learned that this is better when they interact with others.

Oxytocin might also play a part as previous research suggests that under stress conditions women had higher levels of it than men.

When I read this it rang a bell. I remembered a suggestion that rather than having a “fight or flight” response to stress women adopted a “tend and befriend” approach.

I found the reference in an article in the APA Monitor on Psychology from January 2004.

Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at the University of California, who along with a number of colleagues developed the model, proposed that in stressful situations females protect themselves and their young through nurturing behaviours (tending) and forming alliances with larger social groups of women (befriending).

She published her model in Psychological Review (Vol 107, No 3 in July 2000).

Males by contrast show less of a tendency towards “tending and befriending” and were more likely to stick to the “fight or flight model”.

The model was based on research into non-human animals, neuroendocrine studies, and social psychology.

Most of the research on stress responses has been in males but women, as the primary caregivers, can’t always respond in the same way – even though they may have the same initial reaction. Females can’t just flee and leave their offspring at risk.

Oxytocin probably plays a key part as it enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness,and decreases the stress responses typical in a “fight or flight” response. Males are more influenced by androgen hormones such as testosterone linked to hostility.

Oxytocin also promotes care-giving and underlies attachment between mother and child. Some studies have shown that mothers tend to be more caring when they are under stress.

As far as the befriending is concerned females prefer to be with others in stressful situations whereas males don’t. Generally women are more likely to reach out for social support in all types of stressful situations including health worries and conflict at work.

The researchers were keen to point out that we shouldn’t gender stereotype these responses and males might find it equally useful to use the “tend and befriend” strategy as part of a repertoire of responses which includes affiliation.

Sources: Psyblog and APA Monitor on Psychology January 2004