Stressing the differences in gender reactions

Recent research into the types of hormones produced in response to stress is revealing

Women produce more oxytocin in response to stress relative to men. Oxytocin promotes nurturing and relaxing emotions. Photograph: Thinkstock

Women produce more oxytocin in response to stress relative to men. Oxytocin promotes nurturing and relaxing emotions. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

My eight-year-old daughter asked me last week “Dad, who is more famous, Jesus or Mary?” Being the doting father that I am, I thought this was the most wonderful question. I have no doubt that they could spend years debating this burning issue in the inner vaults of the Vatican. And for such a male-dominated institution, it is worth noting that Mary has more shrines devoted to her than Jesus could ever have hoped for. It does appear that Mary represents the essence of the female: Joseph hardly gets a mention.

So what is it about this representation of womanhood and, in particular, the maternal role that is so embedded in our psyche? And why is it that women are so often characterised as the embodiment of the emotional aspects of life?

Throughout history, and particularly in the present day, women carry the bulk of the stresses of daily living. Indeed, there are numerous research studies that support this notion. One could argue that, as women are more likely to discuss their stress, they are also more likely to be more candid in their responses to research surveys. Hence, the perception that they are more stressed. But recent research into the types of hormones produced in response to stress is very revealing: what differentiates the stress response between men and women is the production of oxytocin in the brain. Women produce much more of it in response to stress relative to men. Oxytocin promotes nurturing and relaxing emotions.

The observation is that women are likely to “tend and befriend” in response to stress. So stress makes women more protective of others, often to the neglect of their own needs. On the other hand, men are more likely to react with the more familiar “fight or flight” response to stress. They are far less likely to confront it and try to work through it.

It has been noted that the greatest stressor for women is the loss of a relationship. This is understandable in light of the effect of oxytocin on women outlined above. Perhaps this is why women have greater difficulty saying “No”. The “empty nest” phenomenon and coping with the loss of loved ones can be a particular challenge. And as one blog devoted to women’s medical needs notes: “As women progress through life’s changes, hormonal balance associated with premenstrual, postpartum and menopausal changes can affect chemical vulnerability to stress and depression.” Another highly stressful experience for women is the inability to have children, despite wanting to.

As women are also most likely to be the “caretakers” within the family, this presents a particular challenge to the 70 per cent of married women who also work outside the family home. There is the stress of feeling you are not as available to your children as you would like to be on the one hand, and the frustration of not reaching your true vocational potential on the other.

At the very least, women have a different experience of stress than men do. It is essential that women who feel stressed tackle it in a determined and proactive way. Try the following:

nMake your own leisure time a priority. Plan ahead for this time. You will not be at your best without it.

nEat healthy foods. We all know what they are. Doing it is the challenge. nPractise yoga. Nothing else to say. It is excellent.

nLearn to say “No”. Women are more likely to put the needs of others before their own. Change that pattern and lose the guilt when you do say “No”.

nAsk for help. It is there, but you have to ask for it.

nLose the cloak. Take a break from being the superhero to those around you. Be helpless from time to time.

nHave a bath. Relaxation time is as important as exercise.

nAim to get seven good hours of sleep each night. This requires planning ahead and sticking to a positive routine.

If you find that none of these strategies is working for you, it is time to talk to your GP. You will be amazed how understanding and resourceful your GP is. Stress is inevitable, and even necessary in everyday life. Sometimes it becomes unbearable, but there is always a means to manage it.

Dr Mark Harrold is a clinical psychologist. See drmarkharrold.com

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