Stress is a common experience that we all feel at some point or another. Whether you are young, old, rich, or poor, we all experience stress in some shape or form.
One unique thing about stress is that it impacts people differently. Some people utilize stress to fuel their endeavors, while others react poorly to stress and it gets in the way of their goals. No two people are exactly alike and no two people respond to stress in the same way.
The main way you see similarities in response to stress is when you look at a large population and observe patterns. The American Psychological Association (APA) creates yearly reporting called Stress in America on the state of stress in the nation. Utilizing the data from questionnaires, they are able to make generalizations about how different groups of people perceive, cope, and deal with stress.
It should be made clear that the findings of the APA are strictly generalizations, meaning that there will always be variations in how people act. If a specific generalization made does not align with the way you perceive or deal with stress, that is entirely okay, as there are always exceptions to a generalization.
Below is a deep dive into the differences in stress response based upon gender and how people navigate stress.
How do people respond to stress?
Humans respond to stress in two distinct manners: physiologically and mentally. We have little control over our physiological response to stress, but our perception and coping strategies to stress can be altered.
What does stress do to the body?
Stress not only impacts your mental state, but it also affects your physiology and the way your body functions. The stress response owes its origins to the necessity of the fight or flight response in the evolutionary history of the human species.
The fight or flight response explains a physiological phenomenon that occurs when we are put under an immediate threat.
When a threat is perceived, the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These biological messengers quickly go to work to prepare the body to fight off the threat or flee. The hormones act in unison to decrease non-essential functioning like digestion and divert that energy to organs and tissues required to fight or run. These hormones also cause an elevation in heart rate, respiration, and alertness.
In the modern world we encounter a significantly lower number of immediate threats to our lives than our hunter gatherer ancestors did, yet people still get stressed on a daily basis.
The unfortunate thing about this stress response is that it is not that great at differentiating threats. This means that even small confrontations like getting upset at a person for cutting the line at the coffee shop can induce our stress response and cause us to release cortisol and adrenaline.
Chronic stress can however have large physiological consequences. As stated previously, stress hormones create a signal to tissues to get prepared for a fight or flight situation.
If you are constantly in a state of stress, these stress hormones can lead to increased oxidative damage of tissues like the brain, an increased likelihood of developing illness like cardiovascular disease, along with many more.
How do people cope with stress?
People cope with stress in many different ways, and is one of the most significant ways in which our stress response differs from person to person.
The way we choose to handle and deal with stress is influenced significantly by our life experiences. Once an individual finds a coping strategy that helps they will typically stick with it. This can be detrimental if the coping strategy is one that is unhealthy.
Maladaptive coping skills include self-medicating with alcohol, smoking, self harm, displaying aggression, and binge eating. The reason these coping skills are maladaptive is that they do not address the stress directly and do more harm than good. These mechanisms rather help in the suppression of feeling the stress which over time can build up and lead to the manifestations of chronic stress.
Adaptive coping strategies include meditating, reframing a stressor or situation, exercising, focusing on self care, and talking to others. Rather than avoiding the stressor of feelings of stress, these strategies act by directly tackling the issue head on.
Physiological differences in stress response by gender
While men and women both possess the stress response, the way in which it affects their physiology differs slightly. The exact mechanism behind these differences is not well understood but it is thought to be a result of a variation in the interaction with the Hypothalamo Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis).
Some of the most notable generalized differences in response is that women can exhibit manifestations of stress in their menstrual cycle, men typically have a higher elevated blood pressure when compared to baseline, and women are more likely to develop common mental health issues related to stress.
As research continues, the underlying mechanisms that account for these differences will hopefully be elucidated.
Differences in the stress experience by gender
The APA Stress in America reports illustrates some very unique differences in the way that males and females perceive and deal with stress.
Based on the 2012 Stress by Gender report, it appears that women are more self-aware of stress and its impact on themselves. Women are more likely to report symptoms associated with stress over men.
The survey asked “Which of the following symptoms of stress have you experienced in the last month as a result of stress?” Women were much more likely than men to select a symptom that they had experienced. Within the same report it was shown that females were much more likely to find reaching out to friends and family as a helpful means of reducing their stress.
Another more recent look at gender differences with stress is shown in the 2019 Stress in America Report. The report shows a continuing trend that women are more likely than men to rate their average level of stress higher.
Knowing the exact reasons why men and women handle stress differently is difficult as societal pressures like gender roles, expectations, and upbringing play a large role.
Additionally, genetic and physiological factors play a role in how people react. All of these factors combine to form the biopsychosocial model of looking at human behavior and function. The model basically states that biological, psychological, and societal influences make up who we are and the decisions we make.
Singling out a single root cause of these differences is difficult because these factors are interconnected.
What does this mean for you?
Being aware of differences in the stress response based on gender can allow you to be informed about potential tendencies and manifestations you can be on the lookout for.
An example would be if you know you are stressed and observe an elevated blood pressure. Utilizing the information discussed, you can do your best to support your cardiovascular health by taking cardiovascular-supporting supplements and dealing with your stress in a healthy way. Dealing with these problems preemptively can allow you to have more control over your health and wellbeing.
You can also utilize this information to better understand tendencies or coping skills that are likely to help a loved one. While problem solving and self appraisal may be your means of coping, it may not be your partners or loved ones.
If your loved one is female, you could suggest seeking social support for their stress and try your best to be there for them. While it isn’t a guarantee that they will find it beneficial, based on the data, they are more likely than men to find it helpful.
When looking at people in general, we mostly respond to stress in similar manners. Our stress response, fight or flight reaction, and desire to cope with stress are universally shared.
While largely similar, men and women do generally handle stress in different manners. The underlying reasoning behind these differences is due to an interplay of biological, psychological, and societal factors.
Being aware of these differences and knowing that not everyone's stress response is the same can help you to be more empathetic and be there for the individuals in your life that you care about.