Gender Differences in Responses to Stress

Regardless of which stressors they endure, women respond uniquely to stress. A 2006 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association noted that women remain more affected by stress, especially in the areas of finances, children and the health of family members. Women also reported that stress affected their physical health more than men, and they reported more health problems related to stress, such as high blood pressure, obesity, anxiety and depression.
Women are also more likely to deal with stress by smoking, creating additional physiological stress and further declining their health. Women worry about how their stress affects their lives. Common symptoms experienced by women in response to stress include nervousness, low energy and wanting to cry, while men experience trouble sleeping or periods of feeling irritable or angry. Most women surveyed (73 percent) reported being the primary family decision makers versus 40 percent of men, adding to women’s role overload.
Biological differences contribute to women’s emotional response to stress. In a 2008 study, researchers induced stress in males and females by asking them to count backwards by 13s from 1600. They then measured blood flow to their brains, their heart rates and their cortisol levels, while viewing subjects’ brains using a functional MRI. Men showed increased blood flow to the right pre-frontal cortex as they got stressed, the “fight or flight” area of the brain, while women’s brains showed increased blood flow to the limbic system, the area of the brain that controls emotions. Stress elicits in women a more nurturing and “friendly” response. Hence, women tend to “tend and befriend” while men tend to “fight or flight” when stressed.
A 2008 study of over 50 men and women concluded that women respond to stress with anxiety and depression more than men do. Research findings from a 2010 study deducted that “compared to men, there is an attenuation of stress response circuitry activation in women, particularly evident during midcycle, in subcortical arousal regions that couple with attenuation of regions implicated in the cortical control of arousal.” In short: women become more activated by stress during their menstrual cycle and with hormonal shifts. In an animal study, male and female rats were exposed to different levels of stress. The females with higher levels of estrogen had greater impairment in moderating the pre frontal cortex’s response to stress. This suggests that high levels of estrogen can enhance the stress response, causing greater stress-related cognitive impairments.

Copyright 2012 Carol J. Scott MD.