Stress is a hot-button topic for most of us these days. Whether it’s from job insecurity, financial pressures, family safety, interpersonal conflict, health issues, or just the speed and intensity of life these days, if you’re alive on the planet, you’re probably feeling it. Did you know that men and women naturally respond to stress differently? Recent studies show that the female stress response is almost the polar opposite of the male stress response. Knowing the differences can help us work better with ourselves and each other when we feel the pressure rising.
Much of what we know about stress comes from studies conducted by men about men. We are all familiar with the “flight or fight” response identified in the early 1900s. The basic idea is that when we perceive threats to our well-being our body goes into “survival mode,” which initiates a cascade of mental-emotional-physical effects. Our heart races, our respiration quickens, and blood rushes to our muscles to prepare for action. We get mentally locked in on what we need to do to prepare for, fend off, or avoid danger. In that process. we shut down energy to vital functions such as digestion and immune response and to our higher thinking and feeling capacities. We are geared for action. If we stay in this heightened stress response too long, our bodies and minds suffer and breakdown.
However, did you know that “fight or flight” is more of a natural response in men than in women? Recent studies show that, while women may have learned to respond more like men by moving into what have been traditionally male roles in society, the natural female response to stress is different. According to neuro-psychologist Charlotte Tomaino, Ph.D., in her new book “Awakening the Brain,” the natural female stress response may be better described as the “tend and befriend” response.
While men will naturally get geared up for action, women will naturally care for the needs of others. While men are busy dealing with the release of adrenaline, women experience the release of oxytocin, the nurturing hormone. Because of that, women will tend to focus on making sure that others are safe and emotionally cared for in stressful situations. While men under stress will wear themselves out doing all the outer actions that need to be done, women will tend to wear themselves out taking care of others needs. Something for women to watch out for with persistent stress is the tendency to take care of everyone else’s needs but their own.
The better we understand our stress responses the better we can understand how to handle stress more consciously and effectively. This is true not only for relating to our own stress, but also for relating to the stresses that others feel. Knowing that men respond to stress through outer action and tend to “over-do” and women respond to stress by tending to relationships and tend to “over-care,” can help us know how to help ourselves and each other.
It’s important to understand that we each have our own unique stress response patterns. Knowing this will lead us to our own best solutions. While stress is a natural part of life, too much stress throws us out of balance. During heightened stress it’s vital that we are able to observe, accept, and respect our natural tendencies, so we see what we need to do to move back into balance.