If you’ve ever been frustrated with the way the opposite sex reacts to a problem you have shared with them, it helps to know there are innate differences in the way men and women handle stress differently.
Stress then, stress now
To understand these differences, we have to first examine the initial purpose of stress. Whatever benefit stress may once have offered has mostly disappeared. Primitive man relied on his body’s system to gear up for flight or fight. When he was threatened, his adrenal system started pumping furiously, and he used every bit of the magical substance to save his hide.
But today anxieties are different: Modern man deals mostly with emotional stresses instead of physical ones, though his body cannot discern the difference. Modern social protocol makes it inappropriate for us to fight or run away from worrisome circumstances. So while the adrenal system keeps on pumping for our lives, our minds instruct us to keep cool.
Three stress hormones are involved in the flight or fight syndrome: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin. Cortisol and epinephrine lower immunities and raise blood pressure. Oxytocin softens the reaction of cortisol and epinephrine by relaxing the emotions. Men release less oxytocin than women, and therefore have a stronger reaction from both cortisol and epinephrine.
Because of the increase of oxytocin and the reproductive hormones, such as estrogen, women are tenderized to nurture and reach out to others in an effort to both protect themselves and their young. Women are about relationships. In fact, their self-esteem and identity are both dependent upon their feelings of adequacy in relationships.
Men, on the other hand, are problem solvers. They compartmentalize and repress their emotions to either fight or run away. Males are invested in performance and competition. They instinctively don’t pick up many social cues and innately view eye contact as a challenge. So when your male companion says, “I didn’t know you were angry,” even though you didn’t look at him all day because you were upset with him, he may be telling the truth. Recent studies of brain scans show why men find it more difficult to read women’s emotions.
Another example of this difference: A little boy will have a play date with another child, wondering all along if his toys are better and if he can win. Meanwhile, a little girl will give another child her favorite doll in the hopes that she will just be her friend.
Men let competitors’ accomplishments and employer’s ambitions establish demand ranges, inhibiting self-attention and directing it towards winning. Thus, for a woman, the worst stress is a threat to her relationships, and for a man, it is the inability to perform, compete, and achieve.
Women will often sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others. Their self-esteem is so wrapped up in relationships that a woman may let others’ needs determine her stress limits, while ignoring her own needs. Therefore, women get caught up in the dilemma of over-demand and insufficient self-maintenance, while men repress and compartmentalize their feelings of stress in an effort to attain an extrinsic object. Hence, the self-management and self-maintenance demand is different for men and women.
Women nurture and reach out to others when confronted by stress. They seek support and talk-therapy to lower their anxiety and find a solution or answer to their problems. By processing emotionally what has occurred, women share the stress of their predicament.
Men seek escape when confronted by stress. They compartmentalize and repress their feelings in an effort to get away from their dilemma. They change the subject through diversions, such as sports and clubs. They do not, however, emote or discuss their feelings, but rather hit that tennis or golf ball, competitively.
Working through stress together
Stress management can be taught to both men and women, and more importantly, they can practice it together. Inner work, such as meditation and yoga, are effective in managing stress. Exercise, diet, and a normal sleep regimen are also effective in reducing stress.
The key is to understand the difference between how partners react to stress. This helps us not take everything personally, but rather understand each other, and by so doing, we can better understand ourselves.
Being authentic and aware of our demands and limitations can help us to recognize, acknowledge, and alleviate the stress in our lives — just as using simple words such as yes and no can manage demands and self-maintenance. For it is not stress itself that is destructive, but the way we respond to it. The famous philosopher William James said, “We carry within us that for which we search outside.”
In our modern world, we are offered a beguiling assortment of quick cures and get sidetracked from the inward pursuit of peace, health, love, and beauty. This is a world where migraines, frustration and stress are the order of the day. Coping with stress and learning how to self-manage, with our partner, can reverse illness, premature aging and heal the spirit.
Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., is a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to dif cult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times and USA Today. ABC, CBS and KHOU, Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Dr. Gross’ soon-to-be second book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, teaches parents how to enhance a child’s learning potential through various developmental stages. Two additional books are slated to follow, including The Only Way Out Is Through, a Jungian approach to navigating life’s transitions including grieving, and De ning Moments, which recounts the de ning moments of celebrity guests as shared with Dr. Gross during interviews on PBS’ “Let’s Talk.” www.drgailgross.com