Women and men handle stress differently, research suggests - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Women and men handle stress differently, research suggests

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003 8:47 am | Updated: 2:23 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Stress is your husband losing his job when you have two children to support.

That’s what Amy Mahoney-Casp, 35, of Mesa had been dealing with for several months. Now, her husband, Jamie, has a temporary gig in Denver, working there four days a week and flying home for three.

"When he lost his job, I reacted by retreating to what I call my cave," Amy said. "I resorted to handling the true basics with minimal effort elsewhere — no phone, e-mail. This helped to clear my plate and conserve energy in an attempt to strategize the situation."

Jamie handles stress differently. Rather than retreat, he tackles a problem straight on.

"Experience has taught me that if you give it your best shot, it’ll turn out all right in the end," Jamie said. "The longer you let something sit there, the bigger it grows. It won’t go away, so you might as well deal with it head on."


The lives of men and women may be equally stressful, but many of the stressors, symptoms and coping mechanisms are different, said Georgia Witkin, author of "The Female Stress Survival Guide" and "The Male Stress Survival Guide."

The passage of time can be stressful for both sexes, Witkin said. But men may feel the pressure of an "achievement clock" that’s running too slow. For women, it’s often "that their biological clock is running too fast," she said.

In response to stress, women are more likely than men to suffer from phobias, migraine headaches, panic and anxiety attacks, depression and eating disorders, Witkin said. Men, on the other hand, find themselves at risk of earlier death.

"Men and women are socialized in middle-class America to deal with stress differently," said Kathleen Waldron of Arizona State University West’s Social and Behavioral Sciences. "Men are taught to ‘suck it up’ and to keep feelings inside. Women are encouraged to express their feelings and to share their concerns with others, often women."

The one emotion men in America are allowed to express, however, is anger. That’s why many men will react with anger to stressful events. Or they withdraw, turning to alcohol, TV or sexual experiences.

Part of how a person handles stress is learned, modeled by families and cultures. But physically, men and women also respond differently to stress.

Kathy Matt, director of the ASU Stress Center, said men under stress show a

greater cortisol response than women. Cortisol, an adrenal steroid, increases during physical or psychological stress.

Historically, cortisol invoked the "fight or flight" response. But today, as most stress is psychological, repeated cortisol release — without application — can lead to health problems.

Women, also, can have heart problems as a result of stress, but for a different reason. While women do not show a cortisol response, they do show increased heart rate under stress. Matt refers to this as "sympathetic nervous system response." Over a period of time, this, too, can result in health problems, specifically heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Matt studied these genderbased responses in animals. As reported in ASU Research magazine, her team stressed out Siberian dwarf hamsters by restraining them in mesh bags (the hamsters were not harmed by the restraint). The researchers took blood samples before and after the restraint. As predicted, the males showed a higher cortisol response, just like humans.

Matt also discovered that stress has an interesting effect common to both sexes. In her research, the hamsters were allowed to bond and then were separated. Both the male and female hamsters responded by eating more, which led to weight gain, and by decreasing their activity. (These results were more p revalent in the male hamsters.)


One of the best ways to combat stress — for men and women — is to eat healthy and exercise. This makes the body more resilient.

"My dad started running when he was around 40 and found that his work-related stress was suddenly much more manageable," Waldron said. Other people may swim, hike or do yoga.

For Jim Gilpin, a day might start at 4:45 a.m. and end around 11 p.m.

"I try to get six hours of sleep a night," he said. But the 54-year-old Mesa resident doesn’t always hit that number. And some days he does better than others in keeping stress in check.

"When I was in my 30s and 40s I used to get overwhelmed by stress," Gilpin said.

He used to cope by running. Now, he copes by taking one thing at a time.

"I’ve learned not to try to handle everything in my mind," Gilpin said.

Warning signs

In a survey, women reported noticing the following signs of stress in their husbands, brothers, sons and male friends:

• Becoming verbally abusive, critical or curt

• Withdrawing, becoming more sullen, sulky or preoccupied

• Overeating

• Drinking more alcohol than usual

• Feeling fatigued

• Agitated activity (working off their tension)

• Habits such as foot-swinging, finger-tapping, knee-jiggling, teeth-grinding

Source: "The Female Stress Survival Guide"

Top 10 most stressful events

• Death of a spouse

• Divorce

• Losing a job

• Pregnancy problems

• Revision of personal habits

• Son or daughter leaving home

• Sex difficulties

• Marriage

• Retirement

• Christmas/major holidays

Source: Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe, "The Social Readjustment Rating Scale," Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11

First aid for short-term stress Exercise: Make sure it is regular and convenient. Walking is the most common aerobic exercise for men and women of all ages. Meditation and deep relaxation: Detaching yourself from worries and preoccupations for at least 10 minutes to 30 minutes can do wonders. All you need is a chair and a darkened room. Focus on an object or spot on a wall and count backward from 100, concentrating on your breathing. Soothing environments: Take a warm bath, a hot shower or a five-minute nap in the sunshine. Even browsing at the bookstore counts. Reorganize: Clean out your closet, rearrange your tool chest or set up a new tax record sheet. Any act of organization will increase your sense of control. As a sense of control increases, stress decreases. Play: Don’t just send your children out to play — join them.

Play games such as backgammon for distraction, cards for socialization and Scrabble for self-improvement. Source: "The Male Stress Survival Guide"

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