Women, Men, and Approaches to Stress
Sept. 8, 2000 -- Anyone who has ever had a psychology course during the past 50 years has heard about the 'fight-or-flight' stress response -- that supposedly automatic human response to a threat that has been linked to a plethora of health problems, including heart disease. But when it comes to women, the instinct to protect offspring and seek supportive social networks may be stronger than standing up to -- or fleeing -- any aggressor or stressful situation.
A new study in the journal Psychological Review turns the long-established fight-or-flight theory on its head -- showing that males and females react to stress differently. While men may prepare their bodies and minds to fight off the aggressor or stressor, "women's primary response is more likely to be something we called 'tend-and-befriend' -- tending and protecting their young, making friends, developing a social network, creating bonds," the study's co-author, Laura Cousino Klein, PhD, tells WebMD. Klein is assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University.
In her study, conducted with colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, Klein provides clues taken from research of both humans and animals, all of which point to different gender responses to stress and reveals the underlying biological mechanism for those differences.
In fact, the studies that first established the fight-or-flight response theory only involved men, Klein tells WebMD. "In looking back at the literature, the idea of [being confronted by a] bear, that you either defend yourself or run away, was first proposed in the early 1900s, and it was all based on studies with males. Throughout the years, the majority of work -- at least 80% --has been conducted on males, or studies would put females in with males or would show that women didn't show this response."
It just didn't make sense to Klein or her colleagues since a female's goal -- whether she is human or nonhuman -- "is to protect her young, and in order to do that, you have to form a large group of friends or a network in order to protect yourself," says Klein. "Or you have to quiet or calm your young down so they won't make noise and attract attention. She might have a fight-or-flight response under certain conditions, but that would not be her primary response."
In their research review, Klein's colleagues found this behavioral response time and again. "We also found that oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in bonding and affiliation," she tells WebMD.
The hormone oxytocin is released during childbirth and breast-feeding. It helps the uterus contract during labor and after delivery, and it helps the woman breast-feed her baby. It has also been found to be a mood regulator, Studies show that oxytocin decreases anxiety and depression, and promotes an affiliation or friend-seeking response in females, says Klein. While both men and women produce oxytocin, women seem to produce more.