Women and Stress

Women and Stress, Men and Stress - same or different? Read this highly informative article generously contributed and skillfully crafted by Annabel Shaw. Thank you, Annabel!


by ANNABEL SHAW The “fight-or-flight” response has until recently been regarded as the model for the human response to stress. Whether you decide to “fight” or to “flee” seems to depend on whether you perceive the threat or stressor as surmountable. In other words, 'fight' if you can, 'flee' if you can't. Making the right decision is considered essential to survival.

While this model has dominated stress research for the past six decades, it has been disproportionately based on studies of men. As a result, the question of whether the same model is applicable to women has been called into question.

Recently psychologists from the University of California, studying the responses to stress among women, have developed a model they call 'Tend and Befriend'. Women, they speculated, may have developed a completely different system for coping with stress in large part because their responses evolved in the context of being the primary caregiver of their children. In particular, the researchers propose that women respond to stressful situations by protecting themselves and their young through nurturing behaviours, the "tend" part of the model, and forming alliances with a larger social group, particularly among women, the "befriend" part of the model.

In terms of the fight response, while male aggression appears to be regulated by androgen hormones, such as testosterone, female aggression isn't. Instead, female aggression appears to be more cerebral in nature - moderated by social circumstances, learning, culture and the situation. In terms of flight, fleeing too readily at any sign of danger would put a female's offspring at risk, a response that might reduce her reproductive success in evolutionary terms. Males, in contrast, show less of a tendency toward tending and befriending, sticking more to the fight or flight response, they suggest.

Although the 'tend and befriend' model emphasises gender differences, the researchers reject the idea that these differences are written into our genes. Context seems to be the more important determinant of response. In fact 'tend and befriend' may be just as adaptive for men as for women in certain contexts.The researchers conclude that the most adaptive system would be one in which men and women select from a range of responses depending on the situation and the particular stressor.

Indeed, new research is showing greater differences between women than between men and women!

Fight or flight, tend or befriend - the choice is yours.

Annabel Shaw is a social psychologist who has worked with homeless women, children and cancer sufferers and devised the Lifescape method of visualizing a life history. You can contact Annabel on her WONDERFUL LIFE ADVICE blog for more information, advice or to share your experience.

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