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
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