Stress – Why We React Differently
Apr 25, 2011 02:53PM
● By Dr. Ursula Olazabal, PhD, CSHC, CCS
Overwhelmed by stress and tension from living in a world that demands more of you each day? Studies indicate that anger and stress affects not only the quality of life and general wellbeing, but may also have deleterious effects on skin health and even cause adult acne.
Are there gender differences in coping with stress?
The established viewpoint for over five decades has been that when faced with danger, humans react with the “fight or flight” response. However, these studies on stress and its physiological effects have been done almost exclusively on men. Scientists therefore assumed that women handled stress and tension in an identical manner.
Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) led by psychologist Shelley Taylor have found that women faced with stressful situations, rather than “fight or flight”, seemed to react with what scientists called the “tend and befriend” response. This is due to the production of the hormone oxytocin, which occurs in both men and women in response to anger and high tension. Oxytocin normally causes women to be relaxed and sociable. In contrast to men, however, elevated oxytocin in women in stressful situations reduces the “flight or fight” response, and they instead tend the young and bond to others for support. In other words, the natural female instinct is to protect and reconcile. When oxytocin is combined with other female hormones, like estrogen, it works against stress. In so doing, it reduces generalized tension and has a calming effect.
Why is this response not similar in men?
The hormone responsible for this is testosterone, which is also elevated in men in response to stress, and counteracts the effects of oxytocin at the same time. As mentioned earlier, men respond to stress with the well-known “fight or flight” reaction.
Shelley Taylor and co-workers have described extensively the gender differences to stress. What does this mean for women?
Since they live in a world based on the masculine model characterized by “fight and win”, many women therefore adopt behavioral strategies to stress similar to their male counterparts. Far from reducing stress, these strategies function to increase it. Women tend to forget their female instinct, discarding it as a weakness, and propel themselves into a struggle they would rather not be involved. Yes, they sometimes win, but at what price? Anxiety, depression, hypertension, unhappiness, family conflicts, sleep disorders, sexual problems, etc. Psychological stress and fear of stressors (withdrawal or avoidance) induces cortisol stress responses and production of proinflammatory factors (cytokines) by cells. Together, these two biological events signal cellular stress that expresses itself on the person’s outward appearance. The skin is flushed (capillary dilation and inflammation), with an accompanying excess sebaceous gland activity, increased sebum production and localized irritation (acne). An increasing number of adult women are affected by acne that negatively impacts their body image and self-esteem.
What are the practical applications of this research in everyday life?
It may help explain why many women feel overwhelmed and exhausted! It enables men and women with options to choose alternative approaches for coping with anger and stressful events. Women are more likely than men to look for support from others in all types of stressful situations, from work hassles to relationship problems. This does not mean women are immune from stress or they don’t experience fight or flight responses. It does however mean they may respond to stress by reaching out to others. This is an important behavioral mechanism and may represent the first step in regaining perspective and establishing balance in their lives to ensure health, wellbeing and vitality.
Dr. Ursula Olazabal counsels singles, couples, and sexual minorities to rebuild healthy relationships and improve body image. She is located at Health For Life, 402 N. Babcock Street, #101 in Melbourne. Call 321-259-0555 for more information and a free consultation.