- Mental Health
Gender and Srategies for Coping with Stress
Ever wonder why women are so much more likely to feel the need to 'vent'? Ever wonder why men frequently remarry within the first year after divorce or death of a spouse? Ever wonder if men or women benefit from a stable marriage? The answers often lie within the social and biological differences of gender.
Reasons for Genetic Differences in Coping with Stress
Why do men and women cope with stress differently? The answer involves at least two factors:
- Social expectations
- Biological differences
As a generalization (not a rule) here in the United States, women are often raised to cope with stress by seeking social support from a wide variety of social contacts and by expressing their emotions freely, taking an emotion-focused coping approach to their stressors.
Whereas men are more likely to be raised to remain stoic and tend to take a more problem-focused coping approach to dealing with stress. (See: How to Cope with Stressful Situations.) They are not as likely to 'cry on the shoulder' of a co-worker or seek emotional support from a friend. These needs are most often met by the man's significant other, thus the reason why men often remarry more quickly after a divorce or death.
However, these tendencies don't always hold true, and the borders are blurred when the circumstances between men and women are equalized. For instance, when comparing a man and a woman with similar occupations, education, and income, the different physiological reactions and coping skills employed merge.
In addition, two major factors that equalize coping skills employed by each gender include perception of stress and availability of social support.
Basically, the reason that women are more affected by major life stressors is all about oxcytocin. When encountering stressors related to emotional (such as relationship) issues, women's mirror neurons kick in (neurons that help us mimic our environment and how others are reacting) and oxytocin is produced.
When oxytocin is produced in stressful situations, women are more likely to respond with what Shelley Taylor named "tend-and-befriend" strategies (which from an evolutionary perspective, make sense for survival of themselves and their offspring) exhibiting calmer, more social, and maternal characteristics.
On the other hand, men historically have biologically responded to stress with "fight-or flight" behaviors, again consistent with evolutionary perspectives - men tending to affiliate and mobilize social support in crisis situations, but deal less effectively with daily hassles that require emotional support.
Dominant vs Submissive
Another factor involved in stress management, is that discussed in the Whitehall Study and the ongoing studies by Stanford's Robert Sapolsky. As roles converge in our generation, biological reactions to stress cannot easily be attributed to gender. In general, however:
- The Dominant member of the household experiences lower stress hormones; whereas,
- The Submissive member exhibits a higher level of stress hormones, higher blood pressure, decreased immunities, higher levels of clinical depression, more damage to artery walls (which don't renew) increasing evidence of heart attacks.
For more information, see: How Your Hierarcy Rank Affects Your Stress Level
These levels, of course, affect life expectancy and account for study results that reveal only men (in general), not women, benefit from long, stable, first marriages.