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Stress and Gender

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WebMD Feature

Nov. 6, 2000 -- Susan Sellers' life is harried; so is her husband Mitchell's. Together, the couple run a demanding and rapidly growing furnishings business in Santa Monica, Calif., and share responsibility for Eli, their 2 1/2-year-old son. Their days are long and pressured, and both feel the strain of life in a fast-moving era. Yet despite having equally tension-filled lives, the Sellers handle the stress in totally different ways.

"When I have a bad day, I'll come home and play with my son, then call friends and tell them about what happened," says Susan, 39, now pregnant with the couple's second child.

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"When Mitch has a bad day, he won't talk about it. He internalizes everything." His behavior, though less aggressive, reminds her of her father's when she was growing up. "My father would come home from work and get really angry with us about little things, then stomp around the house."

The difference in coping styles in the Sellers' family could simply be due to their different personality styles. But it might also be owing to their different genders, suggests a new study published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review.

When researchers from UCLA analyzed data from hundreds of biological and behavioral studies (both human and animal), they concluded that females were more likely to deal with stress by "tending and befriending" -- that is, nurturing those around them and reaching out to others. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to sequester themselves or initiate a confrontation, behavior in line with the "fight or flight" response that's long been associated with stress.

Men and women's different reactions to stress might be more than just an interesting observation; it could account for differences in their longevity and health. "Women enjoy a greater life expectancy than men," says Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study. "One reason may be that the tend-and-befriend system protects them from some of the damaging effects of stress."

The Hormone Connection

The researchers found that all signs point largely to oxytocin, a hormone that promotes both maternal and social behavior and enhances relaxation, as the key factor behind the gender difference.

When faced with stress, the body releases a number of different hormones, says Redford Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Some of these hormones, notably cortisol and adrenaline, raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels and suppress the immune system, putting oft-stressed people at greater risk for everything from colds to cancer to heart disease. Some research also suggests that constant, long-term exposure to stress can lead to weight gain thanks to elevated cortisol levels.

Initially, women have the same response to stress as men, leaving them somewhat vulnerable to cortisol and adrenaline. But then women also begin secreting oxytocin from the pituitary gland, which helps scale back the production of cortisol and adrenaline, minimizing their harmful effects.

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