Stress is an unfortunate fact of modern life. Between our careers, family, kids, relationships and other factors, we are a tense bunch. So why do you want to talk it out after a bad day but your husband just wants to retreat to the garage and never discuss it? It’s not just to annoy you! Researchers have recently shown for the first time that men and women actually react to stress in different ways due to our biological and evolutionary differences.
Everyone’s response to stress involves three hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin. Both men and women release cortisol and epinephrine when under stress. Cortisol decreases the effectiveness of the immune system while both cortisol and epinephrine raise blood pressure and circulating blood sugar levels. The key to our different reactions is oxytocin, which counteracts the production of cortisol and epinephrine, promoting relaxation and nurturing. While both men and women produce oxytocin, women are thought to produce much more oxytocin than men.
Researchers now believe that this difference in response is related to women’s evolutionary role of caring for offspring. Most people are familiar with the “flight or fight” response to stress, but it appears that only men feel this impulse, whereas women feel what researchers call a “tend and befriend” response. If an evolutionary woman had taken flight or fought back when faced with danger, it would have put her offspring at risk and possibly reducing her reproductive success. Instead, it was in her best interest to react by protecting herself and her offspring (“tend”) and bonding with other members of the group, most likely women (“befriend”). Studies of rats, as well as humans, have shown that when stressed, females prefer to be with others, especially other females, while males prefer to be alone.
This research arrived at the conclusions by reviewing evidence from research with nonhuman animals, neuroendocrine studies, and human-based social psychology.
Previous studies on human stress response have been conducted solely on men because scientists believed that the monthly fluctuations in hormones experienced by women would create stress responses that varied too widely to be considered statistically valid. As a result, the differences between men and women’s responses to stress have been a mystery until now. Yet, this distinction is “one of the most robust gender differences in adult human behavior.”
However, scientists believe that both sexes take into consideration social context that may elicit a different stress response. For instance, one study has found that there is no gender difference when studying how often husbands and wives seek support from their most intimate companions – each other. And longer term stressors, such as hunger, don’t elicit the same gender-distinct responses either. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes more sense to “tend and befriend” when food is scarce and to work together for the good of the whole rather than isolate.
So the next time you’ve had a bad day and your husband or boyfriend heads in the opposite direction just as you gear up to dish, don’t take it personally. He’s just wired that way!