There are many causes of stress, and men and women share many of the same sources of stress, such as money matters, job security, health, and relationship issues.
However, it seems to be common knowledge that women generally wear different hats at the same time and are constantly shifting between those different roles. Perhaps, because of this, women are seen as generally more stressed than men.
How true is this perception?
Researchers from the University of Arizona decided to find out, and the results indeed showed that women reported a greater amount of high distress days and fewer distress-free days than men.
A great starting point to understand these differences is looking at the gender differences in the perception, the type of stressors, the symptoms and the management of stress.
The experience of stress and our perception of it is directly related to how we respond to stressors. One person’s stressor can be another person’s motivator and what may be overwhelmingly stressful to you may not affect someone else at all.
Your past experience, other stressors in your life, and even your genetic makeup can affect what you experience as stressful. Basically, stress is an individualized experience.
As men and women report different reactions to stress, both physically and mentally, their perception of stress and their ability to manage it are also very different.
Although they report similar average stress levels, women are more likely than men to report that their stress levels are always rising. Research also suggests that while women are more likely to report physical symptoms associated with stress, they are doing a better job connecting with others in their lives. These connections are critical for their stress management strategies and therefore for their perception of stress.
Interestingly, married women report higher levels of stress than single women. Single women are also more likely than married women to say they feel they are doing enough to manage their stress.
The good news is that your perception of stress and the ways you react to stressful situations can be retrained. You can use cognitive-behavioral approaches to change your response to the stresses you can’t eliminate. For example, you can use the “Tame Your Brain Ritual” that I shared with you in my free audio training.
When looking at the type of stressors we also observe important differences.
The greatest stressor for women is relationship loss while performance failure is the greatest stressor for men. One of the reasons they are so different is related to how differently men and women view success and build self-esteem.
When it comes to success, data show that women on average consider family and relationships more important to cultivate and measure their success, while men consider work and career more important areas to cultivate for success. In terms of self-esteem, male self-esteem is often built around adequacy of their performance, while female self-esteem is often built around adequacy of their relationships.
When the stressors increase, if successful self-care strategies are not in place to manage the increased demands of energy, the stress response tends to show up in different ways for women and for men based on these differences. Thus, women and men enter stress mode from different entry points and if we approach men and women the same, we will miss an opportunity to truly support our uniqueness as human beings.
Women are often at risk of letting other people’s needs take over, ignoring their own needs. Thus, self-sacrifice in relationships is how many women enter stress mode. Men, on the other hand, are often at risk of letting challenge and competition be their north-star. Thus, achieving a winning performance at all costs is how many men enter stress mode.
Truth is, in today’s fast-paced world, perhaps women take on many roles at the same time: family obligations, caregiving for children and/or elderly parents, money issues, career, educational and work responsibilities as well as other roles. When the demands to fulfill these roles increase, women can feel overwhelmed and they may not be able to think clearly what their needs are and if they do, they might feel guilty about taking time for themselves.
Stressors can be external factors such as:
- Traumatic experiences or crisis
- Divorce or separations
- Loss and Grief
- Conflicts or toxic relationships
- Barriers that prevent you from reaching your goals: racism, discrimination.
- Excessive or impossible demands from others
- Environmental stressors like traffic and noise
- Money and financial security
- Work-related stressors
On the other hand, stressors can also be internal factors activated by the ways we respond to internal triggers like feeling little control over your life, mental rumination, self-deception or self-limiting beliefs, guilt and shame; unrealistic goals or excessive ambition; toxic stress and the overactivation of your stress response to current stressors as a result of intense activation of your stress response years earlier, especially after traumatic experiences in childhood.
For both sexes, these stressors and the associated coping behaviors have evolved throughout millennia to protect ourselves and our children and to promote safety and reduce distress. However, the type of stressors we are exposed to have evolved from the days on the savannah when we were running for our lives. Today, our stressors are represented by continuous stimuli like the cell phone ringing every minute or anxiety-generating troubles like the mortgage payments and career achievements. Therefore, we went from dealing with a single short-term crisis to having our stress response activated in a chronic and relentless way.
Symptoms of stress
Finally, we see significant differences also in the way men and women experience the symptoms of stress in their body. If it is true that women and men are equally stressed, they certainly deal with it differently. Data shows that women are much more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress, such as headaches, emotional breakdowns, an upset stomach or indigestion, feeling irritable or angry, and experiencing fatigue.
One of the most important reasons why men and women react differently to stress is due to hormones. Three hormones, in particular, play a critical role: cortisol, adrenaline, and oxytocin. When we are under stress, cortisol and adrenaline together increase our blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Cortisol also reduces the effectiveness of our immune system, making us more susceptible to colds, coughs, and infections. All of these effects of chronic stress can lead to serious health problems.
An influential study from UCLA published in 2000 in the scientific journal Psychological Review validates that the biological response to stress is different between men and women. The study reported that women are more likely to deal with stress by “tending and befriending”, which means that under stress women are more likely to nurture those around them and reach out to others. Men’s biological reaction to stress instead is what we know as the “flight-or-fight” response.
The reason why women “tend and befriend” and men “fight or flight” is due to the effects of a hormone called oxytocin combined with female reproductive hormones. During stressful times, when cortisol and adrenaline rush through the bloodstream, oxytocin is released from the brain in both men and women. Oxytocin has a calming effect and increases social bonding. However, female hormones like estrogen may enhance oxytocin release, while male hormones like testosterone may diminish it. This may be one reason that women seek social support more often than men when under stress, whereas men, left with less oxytocin available to cope with stress, activate their full fight or flight response, which usually means that they either avoid the issue or fight back. However, we can also think of befriending as a result of how women are socialized from an early age. They look to their social group for support, especially their female friends, when they are under stress, whereas men under stress tend to bottle it up and engage in more solitary activities.
Notoriously men have more trouble putting their feelings into words and because they reach out less for support, they’re more likely subjected to the damages of stress.
This is often the result of the beliefs of our culture and society that traditional masculinity means invulnerability. Thus, while women are given more leeway and are more likely to be forgiven if they throw up their hands and say, “I can’t handle it!”, men always have to show that they are in charge.
Truth is that the stressors are actually the same for both genders but men are deprived of an important safety valve because of the reduced oxytocin that would allow them to reach out for help and say “This is too much!”
The great news is that we can increase our oxytocin levels by connecting with someone we love or even just cuddling with our dog or cat.
The key message to understand is that even if there are biological and societal differences in how we deal with stress, the ability to balance between stressors and the capacity of our nervous system to cope with an increased activation of our stress response is the same for all genders, and it is critical for our mental and physical health.
I encourage you to work on expanding your nervous system capacity to manage stress and to learn what it means to truly take care of yourself.
One way you can learn to do that is by listening to my free audio-training of the 4 powerful science-proven rituals. And remember: You have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What do you do when you are under stress? Do you reach out for help or do you bottle it up?
Let me know by leaving a comment in the comment box on the blog page. Thank you so much for being on this journey with me.