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Since the early days of human history, stress has gotten our ancestors out of some sticky situations. When confronted with danger, the body’s stress response helps make split-second decisions on whether it’s better to fight or run away. One wrong move could make you someone’s dinner.
Sometimes the answer was clear—if you messed with a wasp nest, run away as fast as you can. But as humans evolved, the stress response adjusted to better react to the type of threats men and women would normally encounter. Men were mainly hunters, for example, and would need to get aggressive to chase prey and put food on the table. Women provided support through farming and taking care of the home, requiring more cooperation with others.
Nowadays, most of us aren’t looking over our shoulders in fear of a tiger attack. But stress still exists, the threats just look different. A looming deadline at work or figuring out how to pay your mortgage next month can trigger the stress response because they jeopardize your livelihood. But because men and women have historically dealt with different stressors, there is a split in how the body reacts under pressure.
When the brain gets a whiff of stress, it sets off an alarm via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This system secretes several hormones that promote changes to your body and increase the chance of survival against a threat. This is the reason you feel your muscles tighten, your heart pounding faster, and your blood pressure rise when under stress as your body prepares to fight or flee.
Stress activates different brain circuits in men and women
Beyond activating the HPA axis, men and women respond differently to stress. Men show greater activation of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in rational decision-making. When under stress, the prefrontal cortex helps rein in wild thoughts and avoid emotional outbursts.
The prefrontal cortex is also activated in women during stress. Compared to men, women typically show greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, explains Aditya Kashyap Mishra, a relationship expert and co-founder of MoodFresher. This area is involved in regulating emotion.
Under stress, the prefrontal cortex is in close talks with the brain’s fear center called the amygdala. It lets the body know that it is still in danger and to continue with the stress response. Women more than men have a higher activation of the amygdala. With continued amygdala activity, Kashyap Mishra says women are vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress. Having chronic stress can impair the job of the prefrontal cortex to calm us down and affect the ability to control emotional responses to stress.
Carolina Estevez, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Infinite Recovery, says hormones are the main culprit behind the stress responses in men and women.
Women with low estrogen levels—like those undergoing menopause—are prone to feeling more stressed and anxious. With continued stress, women may also experience a hormone imbalance with excess estrogen and less progesterone. This is because progesterone is needed to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of estrogen come with its own set of problems, including weight gain and breast tenderness, as well as an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. What’s more, a persistently high cortisol level can negate any benefit estrogen has on your cognition and overall brain health.
Age also affects a person’s ability to recover from a stressful response. After 30, cortisol levels naturally increase every decade. However, research suggests the effect is higher in older women.
Traditionally, girls are taught to always look put together, nurturing, and polite. These stereotypes have created behavioral expectations that criticize women for acting outside of gender norms. Gender inequality has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorder among women.
Another stressor is the role women have in society. Women often play the caretaker when facing stressful situations. “Many take on more responsibilities in their personal lives, which can mean they are better at balancing multiple stressful tasks simultaneously,” says Estevez. “At the same time, this may also lead to women feeling more overwhelmed.” For example, women are more likely to be full-time caretakers to children and aging parents on top of everything else they do for others. Research shows that these women shoulder higher burdens, and have more physical and mental health problems than women who just work.
Since women are more in tune with their emotional states, Estevez says they do better at expressing their emotions to relieve stress. Women also have higher levels of oxytocin during stress, which promotes seeking the social support of others. From an evolutionary perspective, the elevated oxytocin levels might be part of a behavior called the tend-and-befriend method where you put more effort into bonding with others. Not only does this strengthen your social group, but it also provides comfort and builds up your defenses during a stressful event.
In contrast, men are often taught at a young age to withdraw from others and suppress their emotions. Pent-up and unresolved stress can inhibit testosterone production over time. With low testosterone levels, men are more likely to become anxious and irritable.
Before you leave, check out these free stress-busting yoga videos.