Stress and Gender
The Hormone Connection continued...
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
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
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
Would those who don't reach out to others benefit from a good
dose of oxytocin? "People have asked us, 'Should men have oxytocin
therapy?' but we don't know what giving men oxytocin would do," says
While there may be no oxytocin-related pharmaceutical solutions
to help men cope with stress, Taylor says she believes that males might be well
advised to take a cue from women's tend-and-befriend tendencies. "There is
a lot of evidence that social support is healthy," she says. "Men can
get enormous benefit from talking things out with their wives, girlfriends, or
other people close to them."
Some men, of course, already do turn to friends and family in
times of stress. As much as there are biological differences in the way men and
women respond to stress, like all sex differences, there is some overlap, says
Taylor. "Biology sets a range of responses and social experience determines
where you fall into that range."
One friend of hers, in fact, said that he was happy to hear
that tenders-and-befrienders have health advantages. After all, he says, he
fits the description: He's the type of guy who, the minute he gets home from
work, drops his briefcase and rolls around on the floor with his children.
"If more men did that," says Taylor, "they'd be healthier, and so
would their children."