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There is plenty of evidence to suggest that men and women manage stress in different ways. Part of this may be based on specialized differences in biochemistry in the genders. Another aspect may be due to various nurturance behaviors more common in raising girls. There are some studies suggesting women may have an advantage when it comes to dealing with stress, but others point to the fact that women may deal with much more stress than do men, and this may not ultimately prove advantageous.
From a purely biochemical perspective, women produce a hormone called oxytocin in far greater abundance than do men. This is secreted in large amounts right before childbirth and when women are breastfeeding children. It’s also present at other times and may prove an additional help when a woman must manage stress. Secretion of this hormone tends to create a sense of calm, and men could probably benefit if they also possessed it. Presence of this hormone might explain why some women are much better at multitasking than some men.
A tendency that many women exhibit when faced with stress is to guard the kids and seek help from friends. One study calls this a “tend and befriend” stress management technique. Women are more likely to discuss their stress with others and look for friends to help them. Men are far less likely to manage stress in this manner.
A study in mid 2000 done at UCLA by Shelley E. Taylor suggested that women may have an evolutionary basis for acting in this manner. In earlier times, pregnant women and those guarding children could not respond to stress with flight. They would have had a more “fight” response to danger in part to protect children, and might have needed to remain calmer when danger struck.
Another reason that women may be protected against some stress relates to the way in which girls might be raised. Girls may be encouraged to discuss feelings more than are boys, which can help them avoid the sensation that stress is overwhelming. This might make them more apt to manage stress with greater ease than do men.
Men, according to some studies, have more difficulty with stress but tend to hide it, and not talking about stressors can lead to undesirable behaviors or conditions. Holding stress instead of releasing it through communication can elevate risk of heart disease. Some suggestion exists that men are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs to escape stress as part of a flight response. However, some men respond to stress with a fight response and will become increasingly aggressive as stress levels rise.
This doesn’t mean that women manage stress in better ways than do men all of the time. Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association indicates women may respond to extra stress, as might be felt around the holidays, by engaging in unhealthful behaviors like overeating. While this could be a temporary way to cope with stress it can have long lasting effects and creates greater risk for heart disease, and since it’s generally acknowledged that women feel more stress than do men, they may not have a long term advantage in managing stress over most men.
One thing that can certainly be gleaned from the way men and women manage stress is that they might both learn from each other. Encouraging men toward a tend and befriend response can be very helpful, and women might learn from men that resorting to extra food or alcohol are not ultimately good methods for handling stress. It’s valuable to understand that studies evaluating this issue look at a population groups, as opposed to how each individual relates to stress. Individual response can be very different, and some men have great stress-coping mechanisms, while some women don’t.
In this day and age, managing stress for either gender is no easy feat. Women do have a tendency to talk out their stress, which is often helpful, but if it keeps her stuck in the problem rather than moving past it, she probably needs some help in putting it behind her.
I think men who handle stress with exercise are often doing themselves a favor, and women would do well to imitate this. Taking a walk can release stress, besides being good for the body. It gets a person out of the situation, which may enable him or her to think more rationally about it. Conversely, if a man's response is going to the gym to avoid dealing with a problem, it's probably time for him to learn better coping skills, too.
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