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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 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.

Drug Therapy?

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 Taylor.

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."

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