How do we respond under stress? The classic answer has always been "fight-or-flight" but does this explanation work as well for women as it seems to for men? Not necessarily says research conducted over the past decade. We’re revealing a whole new dimension to the way women respond when placed under stress.
To understand the significance of all this we have to go back to the 1920s when Walter Cannon first described the "acute stress response" and the way our nervous system and hormones respond when we perceive a state of threat. The greater the perception of threat, the more intense and prolonged our physical reaction to it. In order to dispel the threat we’re left with two basic choices - run or fight. Over subsequent years our understanding of the stress response has become more refined, but still based largely on the basic principle of fight-or-flight. The question is, how well do these principles stack up with what we know about women?
This is exactly the question Professor Shelley Taylor and colleagues tackled when they wondered if stress affected women differently. Their question was fueled in part by the fact most previous stress studies involved males. From their perspective, women were less likely to benefit from fight-or-flight, especially if they have babies or young children. They also reasoned that females of different species tend to form tight, stable alliances, which might suggest a greater need to seek out supportive relationships.
The scene set, the team embarked on a program of research that examined diverse cultures as well as everything from studies on rats to primates. What transpired has developed into the first new model of stress for decades.
The "tend and befriend" model is not an alternative to fight-or-flight. Indeed the authors point out that the initial shock response in terms of hormonal and nervous system activity is much the same for women as it is for men. However, other factors can intervene to make fight-or-flight less likely in women. Aggression in men, they argue, is more likely to be regulated hormonally. In women, if aggression does occur, it is more likely to be defined by circumstances and confined to specific situations that require defense. Similarly, immediate flight during times of danger would put offspring at risk.
Taylor and colleagues argue these gender differences are related in part to hormonal differences. Oxytocin, for example, promotes caregiving and underpins attachment. Under stress, some mothers appear to increase care and nurturing behaviors, suggesting an increase in oxytocin levels.
Under situations of stress there is evidence that females prefer to seek out the company of others, especially other females. Making use of social support networks appears much less of a priority for males. What is equally evident is the fact that men do use social networks for a whole variety of reasons, and which do not necessarily exclude stress.
It will be intriguing to see how new research manages to unpack these gender differences further and increase our understanding of the situations that overlap or that differ in the male/female response to stress.
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.