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Do women and men really react differently to stress?


Most people nowadays lead a hectic, fast paced life-style where there are a number of pressures and where stress gradually becomes an unwanted companion that taints our everyday life experiences. The word ‘stress’ was coined by Han Selye endocrinologist in the 1930s to describe the condition that results from the perceived discrepancy between the demand of a situation and the social, biological or the psychological resources available to deal with it. In other words, we feel stressed when we are faced with challenges and we are unsure if we can or how to cope with them.

Research has shown that despite the fact that more men are being diagnosed with stress related physical illnesses than women they are less likely to believe that stress can have a negative impact on their physical and psychological health. Women show more concern when it comes to the harmful effects of stress however it doesn’t necessarily mean that they react to and cope with stress better than men do.

Signs of stress

Whereas stress in small doses can increase level of motivation and the ability to deal with everyday challenges experiencing high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time can damage both body and mind. It is therefore in our interest to look out for and notice the signs of stress. When we experience too much stress we might exhibit physical, psychological, emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress.

These are the signs to look out for:

• Lack of energy
• Headaches/Migraines
• Frequent colds and infections due to lowered immune system
• Chest pain, rapid heart beat
• Nausea, dizziness
• Bowel problems
• Loss of sex drive

• Anxiety
• Constant worry
• Difficulty concentrating
• Unable to see the positive side of life/things
• Finding it hard to make decisions

• Moodiness
• Often feeling irritable and angry
• Predominant feeling of unhappiness
• Seeing oneself in a negative light – worthless, useless
• Feeling depressed

• Procrastinating
• Consuming increased level of alcohol or cigarettes
• Change in appetite- eating more or less than usual
• Inability to relax
• Sleeping too much or too little

In terms of gender difference, psychological research found that women and men are equally sensitive to stress and its effects and exhibit the same stress symptoms.

Types of Stress

We can distinguish between three types of stress, acute, episodic and chronic stress.

Acute stress
Acute stress appears when we find ourselves in a stressful situation such as being late, having to meet deadlines, studying for an exam, learning to drive, preparing for a presentation and so on. Acute stress is often caused by the daily demands and pressures of our lives. It is typically experienced for a short period of time and once the cause of stress is resolved, for example, deadline met, driving licence accomplished etc the stress fades away. Acute stress can even be beneficial in small doses as it motivates us, spurs us on and makes us feel excited however when it occurs frequently, for instance one is always in a rush and plagued by constant worry; it can have a negative impact on our health.

Episodic stress
Being exposed to acute stress day in day out however can lead to health problems and episodic stress. Episodic stress is the kind of stress that we don’t want to enter our lives because when we experience episodic stress both our personal and professional relationships suffer. Let’s face it no-one likes being around someone who is irritable, moody and disorganised. Being annoyed, angry, feeling worried and overwhelmed all the time are tell tale signs of heading toward episodic stress. When recognising that one is on the road to episodic stress then it is best to consider a life-style change or to seek help from a professional.

Chronic stress
Psychological issues such as depression and physical illnesses such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), stroke and cancer can result from having chronic stress in one’s life. Chronic stress occurs when an individual is exposed to stressors such as poverty, being trapped in an unhappy relationship or job or suffering from a chronic illness for a prolonged period of time. In some cases chronic stress can also be a manifestation of the long term belief that one always has to be perfect as it puts psychological pressure and demand on the individual on a daily basis. Chronic stress can make us feel burnt out and a feeling of hopelessness can creep in. It has to be taken very seriously indeed as alcoholism, violence and suicide can all be the consequence of chronic stress. The good news is that chronic stress can be treated with targeted behavioural therapy, counselling and medication.

Psychological research into gender differences in types of stress highlight that women are more likely to report feeling stressed and experience acute stress more intensely than men do. It has also been shown that women are more susceptible to chronic stress. The reason for these findings could be that women are more likely to acknowledge that they are stressed and are more ready to share their concerns. Men might experience just as much stress as women however might be more reluctant to label it as stress and might have the belief that they can or ‘have to’ cope with it by themselves.

Reactions to stress

From the psychological data currently available it can be safely concluded that women and men have different attitudes when it comes to stress. Women place a higher level of importance on stress and its harmful effects than men do. Furthermore, research that was carried out at Stamford University found that there’s a gender difference in the way women and men react to and cope with stress. It was discovered that women release more of the hormone called Oxytocin, which is linked to emotions, than men do and therefore react on a more emotional level to stressful situations. It was also discovered that women use more emotion focused strategies to stress release than men. They are more likely for example to use strategies such as letting off steam by sharing their problems with a friend, family member or a colleague or distracting themselves by thinking about something else, watching TV or by eating. Women might also respond to stress by scheduling in relaxation and by seeking professional help. Whereas women are more likely to use multiple coping strategies, where some are more beneficial than others, men are more likely to respond to stress by exercising and doing sports.

As we can see from psychological research women and men experience the same symptoms when it comes to stress however women tend to take stress and its effects a little more seriously than men do, which could be one of the reasons for reacting to stress differently. Although in our modern society it’s becoming more accepted for men to show ‘weakness’, men had to play the role of the strong and brave for centuries, which could explain their reluctance to acknowledge when they are experiencing stress and to react to it in a physical way that shows strength. Also, biologically speaking it is more natural for women to feel and express their emotions and therefore respond to stress differently.


Katalin Swann

Katalin is a transformation Empowerment Coach with background in psychology, specialising in self-empowerment, self-confidence and self-esteem building. She focuses on helping people to remove their psychological barriers that stand in their way of having a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life. Katalin practices a powerful blend of coaching that combines cognitive behavioural coaching, life coaching and positive psychology. This combination enables her clients to make both psychological and practical changes and empowers them to move forward in their lives. Katalin works with her clients in a one to one setting, face to face, via the Phone and via Skype.

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