Stress & Gender Differences

The other day, my daughter mentioned that she and my son-in-law had heard a Dennis Prager interview with author John Gray, whose new book, Why Mars and Venus Collide, is about the different ways in which men and women experience stress. She recommended that I download the podcast and listen to the interview, which she’d found very interesting.

I listened to the interview and it surprised me. I was suprised to learn that research into brain and hormone differences between men and women dictate how differently we handle stress. Men react with fight or flight; women react with tend or befriend. And, when men or women are blocked in their ability to have stress relieved in gender-appropriate ways, they become frustrated, depressed, and eventually ill.

That explains a lot.

I didn’t really believe John Gray, though. First, he’s a popular psychologist–reason enough to doubt him. Second, surely if there are such major, scientifically-proved gender differences, wouldn’t this be all over the media every day? Shouldn’t such important health concerns become the subject of legislation (like those places trying to legislate what’s in our food or what McDonald’s serves these days), or at least some sort of workplace concessions? One would think so.

On the other hand, we now have two generations of women who have been raised to believe that they can not only do anything a man can do, they basically are men. Men with breasts and vaginas, who go to work every day and are expected to bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and continue to be the wives and mothers their grandmothers were. Yeah, and look good and be skinny.

Which brings me to another issue: fat. The reason women gain and keep weight is because they don’t have enough of the hormone oxytocin, which relieves stress and burns calories. I was familiar with oxytocin as a breastfeeding advocate, for in La Leche League we called it the breastfeeding hormone. But oxytocin is more than that; it’s the female orgasm hormone, and it’s the nuturing, tending, caretaking hormone. Women relieve stress by tending babies, children, and just about anything or anyone else–pets, husbands, elderly parents, one another, themselves. At least, this is what I’ve been reading.

I also read that women in happy marriages can relieve workplace stress by simply coming home to a happy marriage. Men don’t need happy marriages for stress-relief, in biological terms. They merely need television, sports, or fun and games–and sex, of course. Women need relationships, we need to nurture and be nurtured, and we need to talk. So all those stereotypes, the ones they berate and belittle us for, are pretty much true. But because we hate ourselves collectively, we women, we downplay our nurturing, caretaking, receptive, talkative sides and we go out there and act like men. This increases our testosterone and compromises our immune systems. No wonder so many women have immune system problems and mysterious illnesses and depression, John Gray says.

This explains a lot. I’m still thinking about it. And I thought I’d blog about it and invite you to read a few of these reports and tell me what you think.

6 responses

  1. I’m reading a book right now called Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, I think is her name. It’s about what happens to women, young girls actually, at puberty. What our society does to them. What it tells them they can and can’t do. How it stifles them. It’s been making me think. I know I’m rambling but I will return when I have become coherent again.

  2. Susan, I have to say the reason that unmarried men are less healthier than married men is simple…They dont’ have a loving wife cooking a healthy meal for them, or at least nagging them to eat healthy. Look at what the average bachelor eats. Hot Pockets, Pizza Rolls, microwave dinners, and Hamburger Helper.

    I know this is a gross over simplification but every time I’m at a bachelor friends house I’m amazed at the content of his fridge. My married friends actually have vegetables in the crisper.

    The Tend reaction of Tend or Befriend makes for healthy meals. I’m gonna fix frozen pizza and drink a beer and ponder this some more. 🙂

  3. I’m not a John Gray fan and would usually not give merit to what he has to say. However, I remember way back when I was in college taking a Health class in which I was appalled at learning that the RDA’s in vitamins were based on the average 25 year old male. Hm?

    As much as I loved my kids baby stage, I can’t say it was a “stress reliever.” I do agree that we are way different and are only now starting to scientifically explore those difference. I think we might have some startling revelations.

  4. Actually, everything you say about oxytocin is ABSOLUTELY as relevant for men. Men’s hypothalami produce similar amounts of oxytocin to women’s. Men’s brains also release oxytocin during physical touch, lovemaking and orgasm. And oxytocin is crucial for penile erection.

    Moreover, men absolutely need happy marriages for stress reduction. In fact, unmarried men are unhealthier than married men in terms of heart and cardiovascular health, likely due to their experiencing less oxytocin releases, which counteracts cortisol and the stress response.

    The only thing different between men and women is that estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while testosterone mutes them, especially in the brain. So, men likely are less susceptible to oxytocin’s bonding effects.

  5. Grrr…yet another discovery that “oh, we’ve been doing all this research on men only, and now look — women are different!” Reminds me of the MMPI, or all the research on heart disease.

    It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that if a basic aspect of life is missing — a happy intimate relationship, friendship, a job that we enjoy that has value, etc. — then we have a hard time with stress in any of the other areas. I’ve seen that with my husband, where if he’s stressed out at work, and comes home to all of us having a bad day, he has a much harder time being a patient dad and husband — I guess because he can’t fight or fly out of it all! (I know you said that men don’t biologically need a happy marriage to handle stress, but it does seem to be a factor for my husband.)

    And then there’s that feminist stuff about women being the same as men. We’re not — it’s just silly to disregard difference. And the problem is that feminists made a fundamental mistake (on one level) by working so hard to get women the same status as men: they were using men as the yardstick to begin with. I’m not belittling the civil rights improvements that feminists made, I’m just a little wary of the whole underpinning of trying to be like men at all.

    That, I think, is the whole reason for the lingering problems that “successful” women face, like the whole Hilary Clinton tears thing — she’s damned for being too “aggressive” when she acts like her fellow male senators, and then damned for being too “emotional” when she gets a little choked up about something important to her. (I’m not going to debate about whether her tears were pre-scripted; I’m just talking about other people’s reactions.) It causes just as many problems to look at everything in terms of gender difference as it does to ignore difference.

    So we need to find some middle ground: women and men are different, but in some respects that needn’t be so important. And while I’m wishing, how about assigning a higher value to all that nurturing that women are so well suited for? I’m not sure what that would be within a society that so firmly assigns only monetary values, but I can only hope.

  6. fascinating! i have PCOS which means when left untreated i have more testosterone than the average woman (but way less than the average man of course)…and i used to be a total stress monkey before i was diagnosed and treated.

    i gotta get my hands on oxytocin. 😛 i am gaining weight and i can feel my PCOS symptoms returning.

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