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Women's Health

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?
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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.

An influential study published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review reported that females were more likely to deal with stress by "tending and befriending" -- that is, nurturing those around them and reaching out to others. "Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process," write researchers, including Shelly E. Taylor, PhD, a distinguished professor in the department of psychology at UCLA.

Why do women tend and befriend instead of fight or flight? The reason, in large part, is oxytocin combined with female reproductive hormones, explained researchers in the study.

Men, on the other hand, with smaller amounts of oxytocin, lean toward the tried and true fight or flight response when it comes to stress -- either bottling it up and escaping, or fighting back.

Demand vs. Energy

"The major sex differences I see have to do with the management of demand and maintenance of energy," says Carl Pickhardt, PhD, a psychologist and author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Positive Discipline. "Because male self-esteem is often built around adequacy of performance, and female self-esteem is often built around adequacy of relationships, overdemand and insufficient self-maintenance tend to cut somewhat different ways for women and for men."

A woman, explains Pickhardt, is often at risk of letting other people's needs determine her limits, while her own needs are ignored.

"Self-sacrifice in relationships is how many women enter stress," says Pickhardt, who is a spokesman for the American Psychological Association.

Men, on the other hand, are often at risk of letting challenge and competition set the pace.

"Men tend to let their rival's efforts or their employer's agenda set the level of their demand, losing focus on the self to preoccupation with winning or attaining an extrinsic objective," Pickhardt tells WebMD. "Achieving a winning performance at all costs is how many men enter stress."

What is the greatest stressor for women and for men? Not surprisingly, "Relationship loss for women, performance failure for men, are often the greatest stressors each sex experiences," says Pickhardt.

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