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Why Men and Women Handle Stress Differently

When it comes to handling stress, men are from Venus and women are from Mars. Why do their coping skills differ?

WebMD Feature

Amanda Ezman's life is a little on the stressful side these days. She's a first-grade teacher to a classroom full of rambunctious 6-year-olds, she's planning a July wedding, and she's house hunting with her future husband. So it's a common occurrence for her to come home after a harried day and feel stressed. What does she do?

"When it all piles up, I usually need to cry and get it all out," says Ezman, of Sherrill, N.Y. "I talk and then talk some more and then some more, and then once I've had a chance to talk through all the things that bottle up inside me during the day, I usually feel better."

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Andrew Flynn's pregnant wife and 5-year-old daughter have relocated from Long Island, N.Y., to upstate N.Y., while he still works on Long Island. He commutes once a week back and forth, and in the meantime, tries to get his family settled in their new house near Syracuse. Stress is unfortunately a part of his life for the time being.

"I don't talk about my feelings when I'm stressed," says Flynn. "It's easier just to let it pass and move on."

Clearly, men and women tend to deal with stress in very different ways -- but why? WebMD talks to experts who explain why stress affects the sexes so differently.

Men vs. Women and Hormones

One of the most important reasons why men and women react differently to stress is hormones. Three play a crucial role: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin.

When stress strikes, hormones called cortisol and epinephrine together raise a person's blood pressure and circulating blood sugar level, and cortisol alone lowers the effectiveness of the immune system.

"People used to think there was a difference in the amounts of cortisol released during a stressful situation in women," says Robert Sapolsky, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. "The thinking was women released more of this hormone, and that produced all sorts of nutty theories about why women are so emotional."

But the fact of the matter, explains Sapolsky, is that there is no consistent difference in cortisol production at all between men and women. It really all comes down to the hormone called oxytocin.

In women, when cortisol and epinephrine rush through the bloodstream in a stressful situation, oxytocin comes into play. It is released from the brain, countering the production of cortisol and epinephrine, and promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions.

While men also secrete the hormone oxytocin when they're stressed, it's in much smaller amounts, leaving them on the short end of the stick when it comes to stress and hormones.

Tend and Befriend, Fight or Flight

While most people are familiar with the fight or flight theory (when confronted with stress, do you stay and fight or turn tail and run?), there's a new theory in town tailored just for women.

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