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Women, Men, and Approaches to Stress


Here's how it works in the stress response, according to Klein: When a woman is stressed, she gets a quick surge of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol -- then the oxytocin. The female hormone estrogen seems to give oxytocin a boost, setting in motion the tend-or-befriend response. It's primarily the testosterone in men that triggers the fight-or-flight response. Other hormones like adrenalin are also involved.

To women, her findings are obvious, Klein says. "And we're saying, 'Yes, it's stating the obvious, but we've found literature backing up this idea -- that women have a different stress response.' It doesn't mean [the response is] better, it just means it's different. It also doesn't mean that men won't have a tend-or-befriend response, and it doesn't mean that women won't get angry. ... It's just that the predominant response might be this befriending response."

Do the findings "set us back 100 years?" asks Klein. "Or does this put women forward, that we should be in more positions of authority? I think what it means is we need to optimize the differences between men or women, whether in work or at home."

"From a scientific perspective, it means appreciating that when you don't see the typical stress response in a male or female, there may be this other response, this tend-and-befriend response," Klein tells WebMD.

"Worth pursuing," Jim Winslow, PhD, a behavioral neuroscience researcher at Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, says about Klein's theory. "It is true that in some primate species like the rhesus monkey, females will tend to maintain social status and reconcile social conflict by forming alliances and relying on social partners for support."

But that's not necessarily the case in all monkeys or in our nearest 'neighbors,' the chimps, Winslow tells WebMD. "In bonobo chimps, it's indeed the case that females resolve conflicts more often using affiliative and alliance types of relationships rather than fight-or-flight responses, but in female pygmy chimps, aggression is the predominant mode of expression."

Winslow, who has been studying oxytocin for nearly a decade, tells WebMD that he doubts oxytocin is the mechanism that causes women to bond rather than fight. In fact, men have a hormone -- vasopressin -- that "does a really good job of enhancing a male's ability to bond," he tells WebMD. "So the genders aren't that different. The capacities are there in both genders. In humans, there are probably shades of differences. But we're talking shades of differences, not extremes."


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