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Stress and Gender

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The Hormone Connection continued...

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.

Interestingly, men also secrete oxytocin when under stress, but they produce it in lesser amounts than women do, and its effects are inhibited by male hormones such as testosterone.

The more relaxed behavior that oxytocin promotes also seems to offer some protection of its own. "Hostility has been shown over and over again to be health-damaging," says Williams. As another example of how women's convivial nature may be protective, William cites the fact that an older man's chance of dying after the death of his spouse rises substantially while a woman's risk increases only slightly. "That's probably because women access a social network to help them get through the ordeal."

Responses Evolved Over Time

Taylor and her colleagues believe men and women's differing responses to stress may have evolved to suit the needs of our earliest ancestors. Females, the researchers theorize, were probably better off laying low and tending to their offspring in the face of danger than fighting, which would have put both themselves and their children in harm's way. Likewise, affiliating with others might have been a more valuable strategy -- a kind of safety in numbers defense -- than fleeing and leaving their offspring without protection.

Many of the studies the researchers looked at indicate that our behavior still reflects these primitive mechanisms. In a 1997 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, UCLA psychologist Rena Repetti found that on days that women reported their stress level at work was highest, their children reported that their mothers had been especially loving and nurturing.

In an earlier study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Repetti found that fathers who had conflict at work were likely to also have conflict at home on the same day. Likewise, when the fathers had highly stressful days, they tended to withdraw from their families.

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