Stress Response Differs with Gender
> 11/20/2007 10:56:23 AM

We all behave differently during times of stress, and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found further evidence that gender affects the ways in which we cope with stress. With a more comprehensive understanding of how the stress response is influenced by gender, we can better explain why our gender puts us at risk for certain diseases and disorders.

The study
, led by Dr. J. Wang, involved 32 subjects, half men and half women. All participants received four fMRI scan: an initial baseline scan, one scan during a low-stress task (counting backwards), one scan during a high-stress task (attempting a difficult arithmetic problem), and a second baseline scan to measure the lasting effects of stress. During the high-stress task, the researchers persistently pressured the participants to work faster and asked them to start the problem over if they made any errors. The participants received no pressure during the low-stress task. During the scans, the researchers collected information on the participants' heart rates, cortisol levels (a hormone released in response to stress), regional cerebral blood flow (CBF), and the subjects' perceived level of stress. The results indicate that for men, stress caused an increase in CBF in the right prefrontal cortex while also causing a decrease in CBF in the left orbiofrontal cortex. For women, stress caused the limbic system, which regulates emotions, to become active. For both men and women, the  affected regions of the brain remained active after the stressful task ended, although this continuing effect of stress was stronger in women. Stress was also associated with an increase in cortisol in men but not in women.

The researchers discussed some of the reasons why men and women experience stress differently. From an evolutionary viewpoint, men may experience a “fight-or-flight” reaction, which increases alertness; while women may experience a “tend-and-befriend” reaction and feel the need to care for offspring and companions. It is also possible that hormonal changes in women relating to the menstrual cycle, menopause, and pregnancy have an affect on the stress response. Men and women may also react differently to different types of stress, but because this study only examined stress response to a performance task, the results cannot be generalized to include to other types of stressful situations.

We have long known that gender affects how vulnerable we are to stress and makes us more likely to develop certain diseases and disorders. Men, for instance, are generally more at risk for heart problems, infectious diseases, aggression, and alcohol and drug abuse. Women are more at risk for autoimmune diseases and chronic pain. They are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety and mood disorders, perhaps because the stress response in women is linked with emotions. With more information about the ways gender affects our reactions to stress, we can perhaps better help those who encounter a great amount of stress and develop mental illness as a result.


That is a fascinating study. Are they planning to test the responses under other kinds of stress? m.
Posted by: Mark A. Rayner 11/21/2007 7:55:48 AM

Extremely interesting. look forward to reading up more.
Posted by: Joshua Sheppard 2/15/2008 1:26:28 AM

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