When I’m stressed, I react the same way each time. First, I can’t sleep. Then, I talk to anyone who will listen about the problem – friends, relatives, the person at the Food and Wine shop near my house who knows me as ‘Twix Lady’. Then, after a crescendo of crying over something insignificant, I figure out what the root cause is, usually thanks to some oddly sage advice from the man who calls me Twix Lady, and do something about it. A couple of months later, the cycle beings again. I wish I could tell you what my boyfriend is like when he’s stressed, but he doesn’t really talk about it. And when he does, it’s after he’s sorted out the problem. While this is common to all male friends and boyfriends I've ever had, I don't feel I can speak on behalf of every human on the planet – except to say that men and women seeming to deal with stress differently is a thing. Speak to anyone (and I spoke to a fair few) and they’ll agree. Take Gabby, 28 who works in London: “[When I’m stressed] I want to talk loads about it. LOADS," she told me. "To the point where things get very out of control and we end up discussing entirely different issues because I'm unable to differentiate between the impact of my work being tricky and my boyfriend leaving his badminton bag on the kitchen table. He, on the other hand, wants no fuss, lots of space, a five second, comforting, effective cuddle into my chest, and NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT.” But how much of this 'let it out/bottle it up' cliché is embedded into our make-up? Do men and women really cope with stress differently on a physiological level? According to Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, who headed recent research on the physiological differences between the stress responses in men and women, a significant amount of it comes down to hormones. When women are under pressure, they release Cortisol, Epinephrine and Oxytocin during the stress response. Cortisol and Epinephrine together raise your blood pressure and circulate blood sugar. "People used to think there was a difference in the amounts of Cortisol released during a stressful situation in women," Prof. Sapolsky says. "The thinking was women released more of this hormone, and that produced all sorts of nutty theories about women being emotional." In fact, according to research, there is exactly the same amount of Cortisol released in male brains as female brains. The difference is Oxytocin, which counteracts the other two hormones by creating nurturing and relaxing emotions.
Women tend to nurture and protect those around them, while also forming social alliances – basically, reaching out to your mates – as an initial stress response.
Turns out, women secrete a lot more of this than men, creating what an influential study titled A New Stress Paradigm For Women, published in 2000, calls ‘tend and befriend’. The fight-or-flight response that people bang on about has often been seen as the typical human response to stress, but this new study argued that almost all of the stress studies in the past had been conducted on men. So it's actually a typical male response. When female participants were studied, they found that women tend to nurture and protect those around them, while also forming social alliances – basically, reaching out to your mates – as an initial stress response. “Women may be better at seeking and giving support, but because of this, they can trip themselves up. They tend to over-invest a lot more than men do, which can cause anxiety, stress, and depression," says Dr. Almuth McDowell, senior lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck University. While production goes some way to explaining it, there are other factors too. Studies have consistently shown that women are better at (at least some) aspects of emotional intelligence than men, and that men are, in general, less able to self-analyse, but more able to compartmentalise and rationalise. "Men aren’t as good at recognising things within themselves," says Dr. McDowell. "I do a lot of research with the police which is, as you can imagine, a male-dominated and fairly macho culture, and what tends to happen is, when men are under stress and they have to be signed off, they are off for a long time. They’ve usually left it far too long to raise their hand and say they’re struggling." This inability to recognise what 'too stressed' feels like is tragically reflected in the high instances of male suicide (the male suicide rate is now three times the female rate) and is often thought to also be a product of what’s known as 'stereotyping'. Stereotyping is something that affects both sexes. Women grow up inundated with images of how female friendships should be, from Sex and the City (if you’re as old as I am) through to cream cheese ads featuring women sat around a table in angel wings gossiping about men. We're taught that women talk to their friends about their problems (often using pink landlines and three-way conference calls), and men don’t, or can't. Think of the stereotypical dad trying to give his son a talk on the facts of life, saying about three words and giving up. Or the stereotypical teenage boy who is awkward about talking to his mates about girls he likes. Think about the stereotypical teenage girl running to her mum when she has her first period. Or if not her mum, her female friends. "We play these roles," says Dr. McDowell. "That's the hard thing. We grow up and we assume roles that we've seen others taking on, that we feel we need to take on. If you look at the workplace, which is where stress often runs high, research shows we associate certain attributes with males, including good organisation, assertiveness, asking for promotions. But men and women think the same things." "If you look across the board, research suggests that men get clearer roles. In Politics, women are more likely to be given swing seats when they’re standing for elections than men," says Dr. McDowell. "This is changing, for the better, but this persistent inequality just makes it slightly harder and more stressful for women, as they're always on the back foot, or perceiving that they are." A friend of mine has a rule that when she is the only woman in a male-dominated meeting, she has to say something relevant or important within the first five minutes, to establish herself, otherwise she feels her confidence drops and her voice gets trampled on. And whether or not this is the case, the fact that it's a trick women are having to employ, shows that sometimes we do have to work that little bit harder to get to where the guys are. So do women and men get stressed out in different ways? Hormonally, yes. Environmentally, yes. And thanks to that ever-improving but frustratingly elusive gap in the workplace, women still have to deal with a little more stress than our male colleagues. But at least we're dealing with it while dosed up with Oxytocin. Neither men nor women deal 'better' with stress – that's the take away here – but it's true that we're pretty different, on the whole, with what it does to our bodies and brains. Maybe we'd do well to try and learn from each other? I'll think about that next time I'm curled in a ball yelling, "WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE IN THIS RELATIONSHIP WHO CURLS INTO A BALL?"