How Men and Women React Under Stress

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • Last year I wrote a post comparing the ways in which men and women respond under stress. I pointed out that the traditional fight-or-flight model, our primitive stress response to threatening situations, goes only so far in explaining stress. It’s an issue that continues to exercise the brains of academics. Women, for example, are argued to find less benefit from fight-or-flight than men. The reason, argue professor Shelley Taylor and colleagues, is that women’s priorities tend to differ. Fight-or-flight isn’t always helpful if babies and young children are involved, so women try to adjust to circumstances and form tight socially supportive networks, a model now being referred to as tend-and-befriend.

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    Little by little we’re finding out more about gender differences. In 2011, Nichole Lighthall, a USC doctoral student, reported her findings that men and women react differently to risky decision-making, and this is reflected in different brain activity patterns according to gender. When not under stress, she says, men and women appear to think in similar ways. Under a stress simulation task men appear to have a higher drive to act quickly whereas women tend to slow down. Women appear to become more cautious over decisions and strive to make the right choice. Men’s performance on the task was much better however and they appeared more motivated towards achieving smaller rewards.


    This week we learn that stress appears to undermine empathic abilities in men but increases them in women. I can almost hear the chorus of, ‘no surprises there.’ Men under stress tend to turn inward. They become more self-centered and less able to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. As men become more stressed they seem less able to take on the perspectives of those around them and are much more inclined towards egocentric actions.


    Women seem to apply more social strategies when under stress, according to research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, by Giorgia Silani and colleagues. At a psychological level women may have internalized the knowledge that they receive more external support when they interact with others. The more stressed they are, the more they apply social strategies.




    Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., & Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T.A. (2000). Biobehavioral response to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429. - See more at:


    L. Tomova, B. von Dawans, M. Heinrichs, G. Silani, C. Lamm. Is stress affecting our ability to tune into others? Evidence for gender differences in the effects of stress on self-other distinction. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014; 43: 95 DOI:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.006


    University of Southern California. "When stressed, men charge ahead, women more careful, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 June 2011. <>.

Published On: March 18, 2014