Neuroscientists, using fMRIs to scan subjects’ brains, have been able to demonstrate how brains are affected under stress. In men, increased blood flowed to the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting the activation of the “fight or flight” response. In women, stress activated the limbic part of the brain, which is associated with emotional responses. The research also showed that the changes in the brains of women during the stress response lasted longer in women. This research was conducted by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Trier in Germany.
This is the first new model to describe people’s stress response patterns in more than 60 years and fills a gap in the stress response literature. Almost all the stress response studies in the past have been conducted on males, and therefore, upheld fight-or-flight as the main response to stress.
For decades, psychological research maintained that both men and women rely on fight or flight to cope with stress, meaning that when confronted with stress, individuals either react with aggressive behavior, such as verbal conflict and more drastic actions, or withdraw from the stressful situation.
The researchers found that men often react to stress with a traditional fight-or flight response. However, the researchers found that women are more likely to manage their stress with a tend-and-befriend response by nurturing their children or seeking social contact, especially with other women.
If a woman is stressed, she may get a quick burst of the stress hormones epinephrine, nor epinephrine, and cortisol. Then comes oxytocin. The female hormone, estrogen, enhances oxytocin’s role, and the tend-or-befriend response in women, while the male hormone testosterone appears to enhance fight-or-flight in men.
“It seems that rather than responding in a fight-or-flight fashion when threatened, fearful or stressed, women may more often tend-and-befriend. Women are more likely to protect and nurture their young, and turn to family and friends for solace when they are stressed,” explains Dr. Klein of Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development.
The “tend-and-befriend” methods range from talking on the phone with relatives or friends, to making simple social contacts such as asking for directions when lost. This difference in seeking social support during stressful periods is the principal way men and women differ in their response to stress.
Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension, aggressive behavior, or alcohol abuse explains Klein. The tend-and-befriend response may, in some ways, protect women against stress and may provide insights into why women live an average of seven years longer than men.
These findings reinforce the popular notion, promoted by John Gray’s book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Some experts say that this kind of information may someday lead to a screen process for mood disorders. Other experts caution that hormones, genetics and environmental factors may influence these results, bringing light to yet another difference between the brains of men and women. In either case, we now have more accurate information about how the brains of men and women respond differently to stress.
Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services.
By Ray B. Williams