Blame it on Hormones: Why Stress Response Differs in Women and Men
Studies show that physiological stress response differs in men and women, as do coping methods. New research finds that this may be because stress hormones trigger different responses in the brain cells of men and women.
What Stress Does to Your Body and Mind
Stress is part of your body's survival mechanism. The experience we call "stress" is basically your body and mind telling you that something is wrong. For animals, stress can be life-saving on a daily basis. However, most people aren't in life-or-death situations, so the cascade of hormones associated with the body's natural stress response often ends up causing more harm than good, especially when it comes to chronic stress.
Chronic stress can often lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, chest pain and insomnia. People who experience chronic stress also are more prone to viral infections, including the flu and the common cold. These illnesses also tend to be more frequent and more severe in people under chronic stress. Vaccines are also less effective for those experiencing chronic stress. Chronic stress can also contribute to lack of energy and low libido, and cause or worsen psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
Stress Response Differs Between the Sexes
When the stress response occurs very frequently, as it does with chronic stress, it can actually result in DNA being modified by stress hormones. These DNA modifications can cause genes to behave differently, eliciting effects that include an increased likelihood of depression and other psychiatric conditions.
Science has shown that women are more likely than men to suffer from depression, anxiety and other conditions. New research has found that stress hormones trigger different responses in the brain cells of men and women. This may explain why women are more susceptible to the ill effects of long-term stress.
Men and Women Cope With Stress Differently
Although women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic stress, at the same time, women generally deal with stress in healthier ways than men do. Women will typically reach out to friends and loved ones for social support when facing large amounts of stress. Men typically ignore the problem and bottle it up.
Women may more readily seek out social support during difficult times due to the effects of hormones. In both women and men, when the stress response occurs, hormones including cortisol and epinephrine are released into the body, increasing blood pressure and blood sugar and lowering the effectiveness of the immune system. However, in women, when the hormone cortisol is released, it is followed by the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin produces feelings of love and nurturing, causing the woman to want to find a shoulder to lean on. Although men also secrete oxytocin during stress, it's in much smaller amounts, leaving them much less likely to seek social support.
Tips for Coping With Stress
When dealing with stress, it's crucial to resolve your problems in a healthy way. Reduce the source of stress whenever possible, whether it's a toxic relationship, a terrible job, or something else. Of course, not everything in life is within your control. By relaxing in constructive ways, you can reduce stress and improve your overall health. Talk over your problems with a trusted friend, as support from loved ones is possibly the best method of relieving stress.
Aside from social support, exercising is one of the best ways to reduce stress. It's very healthy for your body and mind, improving your cardiovascular health while releasing endorphins that make you feel good. Hobbies and entertainment are another option—a relaxing weekend trip with your spouse may be in order, or maybe pick up that novel you've been meaning to read. Meditation is also a very useful stress-reduction activity, and you don't have to belong to any particular religion or creed in order to participate. Studies have shown that people who meditate have much lower stress levels, better concentration and better mental health.
Avoid using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs to relieve stress, especially if you don't normally use these substances. Although it may provide a temporary relief, in the long run using substances to feel better will have negative repercussions on your health and well-being. Another common, but unhealthy, stress-relieving tactic is emotional eating. Emotional eating over time can lead to obesity, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease. So, instead of having a beer or eating a pizza just because you feel stressed, call up a friend to catch up, or go on a brisk evening walk. See how much better you'll feel!