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Women, Men, and Approaches to Stress

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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.

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."

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