The Null Device

Men, women and stress

When men experience stress, they respond with a flight-or-fight reaction; when women experience stress, they respond by maintaining friendships with other women:
Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight; In fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is release as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testosterone---which men produce in high levels when they're under stress---seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, she adds, seems to enhance it.

(I'm not so sure that stressed men don't experience the impulse to talk about it with friends; though maybe when they do, it's the result of a modern living and/or oestrogen-like chemicals in the water supply turning them into a bunch of big girls' blouses. Which ties into the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate.)

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic "aha" moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded, says Dr. Klein. When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.

The article suggests that this difference between men's and women's responses to stress could be the reason why women outlive men on average.

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