We talk a lot about stress and it’s particular effects on women, but why is it that women are plagued more often – and more severely – by stress? Whether it’s emotional or physical stressors, doctors across the board see more women displaying symptoms of overwhelming stress taking a toll on their bodies.

This is likely caused by several factors, but below you’ll see why some experts believe this gender gap appears and some unique ways women’s bodies are affected.

Women and Stress

Stress increases the risk for:

  • Accidents
  • Headaches
  • Bowel disorders
  • Poor digestion
  • Skin disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional disorders
  • Asthma attacks
  • High blood pressure/strokes
  • Colds/infections
  • Backache
  • Arthritis/immune disorders
  • Heart attacks/recovery
  • Cancer
  • Ulcers
  • Sexual dysfunction

Why do some experts feel that women are particularly susceptible to stress?

Women are socialized to be the caretakers of others. More women than men have both a career outside the home and continue to try to juggle traditional responsibilities after hours. Over 70% of married women with children under the age of 18 are employed outside the home. Sociologists describe women as struggling to achieve the “male standard” at work, while trying to maintain the perfect wife and mother standards at home.

Women are also less likely to be in as powerful positions as men to change their environment. Women find it harder to say no to others’ requests and often feel guilty if they can’t please everyone. They often spend less time nurturing their own emotional and physical needs, as that might be perceived as selfish. In addition, relationship alterations or the loss of loved ones can produce empty nest or other separation syndromes.

As women progress through life’s stages, hormonal balance associated with premenstrual, post-partum and menopausal changes can affect chemical vulnerability to stress and depression.

– via my.clevelandclinic.org

One of the main factors that explains different coping mechanisms between genders comes down to our hormonal differences. Below is a great breakdown of the differences and how they effect our bodies and emotions, as well as research showing a different stress response discovered just a few years ago. We’ve all heard of “fight or flight” but you might identify more with “tend or befriend.”

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.

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.

– via WebMD

Do you identify more with “fight or flight” or “tend or befriend”?