There is some difficulty inherent in studying the different health effects of stress on men and women. Each individual’s history and health are factors, and there are so many forms of stress, it becomes difficult to isolate variables effecting the subjects of the study. Response to stress is seen to differ by gender in many species including humans. Men tend to exhibit the fight or flight response, where women adopt the “tend and befriend” response, one in which nurturing children or seeking outside support reduces the stress. Female hormones amplify oxytocin, a calming hormone, released in both men and women when stressed. Both the response and the hormone are thought to be partially responsible for women having longer life expectancies.
Three main hormones – cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin – determine how men and women react to stress for the most part. In both sexes, cortisol and epinephrine are released in response a stressor, causing an increase in blood pressure. (Cortisol also interestingly has detrimental effects on your immune system, which is one reason why people are more susceptible to illnesses when they are stressed.)
Stress reactions differ between men and women in the level of oxytocin that is produced. Women tend to produce more oxytocin, which counters the production of the other 2 stress hormones, and promotes nurturing, relaxed sensations. Men produce less of this hormone, and are thus more affected by the BP hike resulting from the cortisol and epinephrine rushing through their systems.
Studies show that when stressed, women become more “emotional” – meaning the area of their brains that processes facial expressions becomes more active. On the contrary, this region of men’s brains has reduced activity. “Women’s enhanced abilities to gauage facial expressions and respond to them could party underlie their tend and befriend reaction to stressful situations.”
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