Thursday, April 26, 2007

Women and Stress

Newsflash: women respond to stress differently than men.

Prior to 1995, the preponderance of stress research was conducted on males (and male rats); and it was thus generally understood that the human stress response was “fight or flight”. This news that women have “a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight” is based on a stress study conducted by Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues. (Shelley E. Taylor, Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A. R. Gurung, and John A. Updegraff, University of Calikfornia, Los Angeles, "Biobehavioral responses to Stress in Felales: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight”, Psychological Review, 2000. Vol. 107, No. 3, 411-429).

The study, conducted by neuroscientists, focuses on neuroendocrine (brain chemical) and hormonal differences between females and males. The researchers theorized that “because females have typically borne a greater role in the care of young offspring, responses to threat that were successfully passed on (to future generations) would have been those that protected offspring as well as the self.” Further, because protecting self and offspring can be more complex than fighting or fleeing, researchers also theorized that evolution would select for mothers who “made effective use of the social group would have been more successful against many threats than those who did not”.

As reported in an article about this study, written by Gale Berkowitz:

"'Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible', explains Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study's authors. 'It's an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by sabre-toothed tigers'. Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight! 'In fact', says Dr. Klein, 'it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect'."

Berkowitz acknowledges that it may take some time and further research to understand these gender differences in stress responses. Meanwhile however, Berkowitz concludes that the “friend and befriend” thesis developed by the UCLA researchers may explain why women with friends “consistently outlive men'; why “the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life"; and “how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse… (and) were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality.”

Tell a friend.

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