Studies on gender and stress have discovered that during prolonged stress, men experience the “fight or flight” mechanism, while women typically tend towards “treat and nurture.” Gila Brunner, certified sex therapist at the Center for Sexual Medicine at Sheba Medical Center, explains that regardless of the source of stress – be it the COVID-19 pandemic, war, chronic illness, or severe economic conditions – clear differences between the common effects on men and women have been identified. These variations occur even though men and women both have the stress hormone cortisol.
The male reaction – fight or flight
The classic symptoms of “fight or flight” evolved as a survival mechanism helping people to react quickly to threatening situations by fighting the danger or fleeing to safety. In general, this mechanism is triggered most prominently in men.
In response to a stressful incident, a cascade of stress hormones is released. These hormones lead to physiological changes, such as a pounding heart, tense muscles, sweating and rapid breathing. Some men get angry or argumentative, which is a part of the “fight.” Others flood emotionally with feelings of helplessness, anxiety and frustration, motivating them to retreat into a foul mood and sleep as a way to escape; that’s the “flight” part of the reaction.
The female reaction – treat and nurture
Secretion of the hormone oxytocin is the primary reason why women don’t demonstrate the “fight or flight” tendency as frequently. Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including lowering cortisol levels and blood pressure. It plays a vital part in homeostasis, balancing the body’s biological systems and contributing to body relaxation.
The biological life experiences that women undergo, such as pregnancy, nursing and child care, may lead them to naturally turn to intimate contact, empathy and emotional expression. Women are therefore more likely to choose treatment, giving, friendship, and sharing their feelings with others as a way to handle stress.
In sum, personal connection is often a big part of female stress management. According to the American Psychological Association, this ability to connect with others may be the reason why women are more likely to take charge of their stress and manage it.
Bridging the gap between men and women
“First of all, realize that the differences are natural and inevitable, and try to enjoy all worlds!” advises Brunner.
By applying the “fight” reaction, men can respond to stress with a high level of practicality. On the other hand, women are well equipped to calm, share, relieve loneliness and offer support during times of distress. In a relationship, each gender must understand and respect the unique needs of the other. For example, the woman should honor the “fleeing” man’s need for silence, while the man should respect the woman’s need for an embrace and physical touch
“To succeed in the complicated task of overcoming the differences between men and women, supportive communication and personal, open discourse is absolutely necessary,” said Brunner.
Times are changing
In recent years, many changes in gender roles have taken place, which has produced changes in the typical stress responses. The usual reactions of men and women to stress are not as black and white as in the past. Nowadays, there are plenty of individual variations.