by Tina Coleman
As most couples are aware, men and women respond differently to stress. What hasn't always been clear is how or why. Our understanding of the human stress response has been based on the "fight-or-flight" model, which states that when confronted with a stressful situation, humans either will respond with aggressive behavior or will withdraw.
One study offers clues to the biological and behavioral differences in the ways men and women cope with stress. It found that females of many species, including humans, respond to stressful situations by protecting and nurturing their young and by seeking social contact and support from others, particularly females. The study refers to this response as "tend-and-befriend."
As with the fight-or-flight response common in males, this tend-and-befriend response to stress may have a biological basis. The hormone oxytocin, which is secreted by both males and females in response to stress, is believed to play a role.
In males, the effects of oxytocin seem to be reduced by male hormones. But in females, oxytocin—along with other stress hormones—may play a key factor in reducing the female 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 abuse of alcohol or drugs, while the tend-and-befriend response may protect women against stress.
Doctors have recognized a condition that they have memorably called “broken heart syndrome.” In this probably rare condition, acute stress, such as news of a loved one’s death, leads to sudden onset of chest pain, heart failure, or even sudden death. While this broken heart syndrome does occur in men, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine reported that women were more likely to have this condition.
"For men it would suggest that reaching out is beneficial—protective, even—in times of stress," says Richard Driscoll, PhD, author of The Stronger Sex. "But for hundreds of thousands of years, men who revealed their weaknesses tended to be undesirable mates. Hiding weaknesses has been biologically advantageous, and men still tend to be less likely to reveal weaknesses."
This reluctance on the part of men to reach out, Dr. Driscoll believes, could help explain the difference in life expectancy between the genders.
"Women get more medical care; they consume two out of three healthcare dollars. They are more likely to seek help from therapists. Men don't get the healthcare; they tend not to reach out."
Men need to learn to deal with stress in a healthy manner, says Dr. Driscoll. He recommends a process he developed called "mental shielding" to brush off hostility. Mental shielding involves developing the ability to disengage from hostile comments and remain in control, first by achieving a calm, relaxed state, and then creating a mental shield between yourself and your partner. This deflects the hostility and allows you to better deal with the core issues.
The American Institute of Stress
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Broken heart syndrome: real, potentially deadly but recovery quick. Johns Hopkins website. Available at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press_releases/2005/02_10_05.html . Published February 2005. Accessed July 2008.
Highlights: 1998 Department of Defense survey of health related behaviors among military personnel. Tricare website. Available at: http://www.tricare.osd.mil/ .
Taylor SE. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or flight. Psychological Review . 2000;107:411-429.
Wittstein IS, Thiemann DR, Lima JA, et al. Neurohumoral features of myocardial stunning due to sudden emotional stress. N Engl J Med. 2005;352:539-548.
Last reviewed June 2010 by Brian P. Randall, MD
Last Updated: 6/16/2010
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