Why stress makes men fight while women protect

Do you ever wonder why men and women respond differently to stress?


Marianna Kilburn
Qualified Life Coach
@MariannaKilburn
Ask Marianna


13 November 2014

Stress behaviour

Let’s face it, who behaves at their best when they are under stress?  Perhaps you recognise yourself in one or more of these classic behaviours.  Do you…:

  • Stomp around angrily looking for trouble with the first person who might provoke you?
  • Leave a trail of mess and chaos around the house?
  • Isolate and withdraw not wanting to reveal your vulnerable feelings?
  • Blame yourself and have to listen to a never ending internal diatribe of critical dialogue?
  • Overcommit and run around like a headless chicken?
  • Reach for the biscuit tin, a large coffee and a glass of wine when you get home?
  • Get the credit card out and shop til you drop?

Whether your stressed out defaults are like those listed above or special and unique to you, the chances are you don’t feel at your best when under stress and would benefit from doing things differently.

Interestingly, studies in the last few years have revealed that men and women do have different stress defaults. 

Apparently this is partly due to the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is released along with cortisol and other hormones when we are under stress.

Oxytocin levels generally rise when we hug, nurture and bond with another, leaving us feeling happy more relaxed.

It seems that women naturally release more oxytocin than men giving us an instinct to ‘tend and befriend’ when under pressure. 

If you consider the days of our ancestors when  ‘fight or flight’ meant literally running for your life, it’s easy to imagine that women would seek to protect their offspring and stay close to others, while men went out to fight off the threat.

These days our stressors tend to be more emotional or psychological but the response from men and women apparently is still likely to reflect these varying instincts.

Men may naturally...

  • Withdraw and find communication challenging
  • Tend to want to be alone in their ‘man cave’
  • Tend towards fight (getting angry, competitive or looking for someone to blame)
  • Or flight (wanting to escape into a distraction).

Women may naturally...

  • Feel a whole range of difficult emotions.
  • Want to talk, seek reassurance and nurture
  • Seek to keep relationships harmonious even if it calls for going into overdrive and self sacrifice

So for those of you left wondering why it can be challenging being around the opposite sex  when under stress it seems my husband had a point when he claimed, ‘women look for empathy and men look for solutions’.

What you need to know

If you are wrestling a whirlwind or hoping to help a loved one manage a maelstrom here are some tips:

Stressed men may benefit from:

  • Being given space (to be alone or out with the boys)
  • Subtle suggestions to talk but only if required
  • Physical or competitive exercise
  • Pursuing a hobby.

Women may benefit from:

  • Talking to a friend, family member or support network
  • Indulging in a nurturing activity
  • Taking a relaxing bath or getting a massage
  • Saying ‘no’ to going into overdrive and ‘yes’ to self care.

That said we humans are complex beings with aspects of the masculine and feminine whether we are male or female.  Therefore the most important thing is to create a personal self care kit that works for you and be sure to call on it and communicate it to all those who need to know.

Links and sources

http://www.webmd.com/women/features/stress-tips-for-men-and-women?page=2

http://www.uhc.com/source4women/health_topics/stress/managing_stress_tools_and_resources/how_women_handle_stress.htm

http://www.besthealthmag.ca/get-healthy/best-health-for-men/is-stress-harder-or-men

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gail-gross/men-and-stress_b_3430607.html

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