Stress and gender

Most of us are affected by stress, but how do men and women differ in the way they deal with it? AXA PPP healthcare explores

There’s so much to deal with in our everyday lives that it can be difficult to find someone who isn’t affected by stress. However, we don’t all react in the same way and, as a general rule, there’s a real difference in the ways that the genders respond to stress and how they deal with it.

A problem shared
“It doesn’t matter what’s causing their stress, men and women have very different coping strategies,” says Professor Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University. “Women tend to have higher EQ – emotional intelligence – and, when they’re having problems, they tend to seek social support. They’ll talk about it, often to a female friend, to help unwrap the options open to them to deal with the problem.”

Women do tend to be better at expressing how they’re feeling. If a woman is upset she is likely to tell people around her, and to show her emotions – often known as the ‘tend and befriend’ response. By being open about how they’re feeling, women allow the people around them to help them. They’re also given support and advice, which can help reduce their stress levels.

Strong, silent types
“Men don’t usually share their worries. Men’s EQ tends to be a lot worse than women’s, and they tend not to express their emotions in public very often,” continues Professor Cooper, “and they certainly don’t seek social support from other men. This is because they want to be perceived as strong – ‘I can deal with my problems by myself’.”

Not surprisingly, many men tend towards the, typically male, ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations. Scientists, such as Dr Joohyung Lee, from the Prince Henry’s Institute in Melbourne, believe this may be caused by the SRY gene in men, which is involved in male development and may promote aggression.

Drowning your sorrows
As many men don’t feel comfortable talking about problems, at work or at home, they’ll keep them buried. Or, they may go out with a friend for a drink, hoping that they’ll be able to talk about their issues, only to blame their openness on the alcohol.

“Often, even if less inhibited by alcohol, they really don’t get to the nub of the problem,” says Professor Cooper. “They tend to skirt around the issue and it’s not a good strategy because they’re likely to cause another problem, which is getting drunk – or using alcohol as a crutch. It’s not a healthy option.”

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Of course, this doesn’t apply to all men ‒ some are more comfortable with their emotions and deal with stress problems in a similar way to women.

Stress hot spots
While men and women have different ways of dealing with stress, we all tend to experience stress in the same situations. These feelings can come from problems at work – if you’re worried about losing your job, for instance, or are being bullied at work.

“Women experience more stress at work than men, by virtue of the fact that they’re trying to juggle work and home, and may be in male-dominated environments,” Professor Cooper explains. “However, they don’t get the illnesses that men get – and that’s because they have better coping strategies.”

Stress can also start at home – for example, if you’re having relationship problems, if someone close to you is ill, or has died, or if noisy neighbours are making home life miserable. Worries about money and debt can be a major source of stress – and can lead to feelings of being powerless.

“Basically, it’s about not having control,” says Professor Cooper. “Change that you can’t cope with or do anything about, major life events – such as an illness in your family – are very problematic events for both men and women.”

How to stress less
“Men can improve the way they deal with stress by reviewing their lifestyles and identifying areas where theyare taking on too much,” says Eva Cyhlarova, head of research at the Mental Health Foundation. “This will help them to prioritise things that they are trying to achieve and go on to reorganise their lives so that they are not trying to do everything at once.

“It’s also important that women take the time to look after themselves. Eating regularly and healthily is important – there are strong links between what we eat and how we feel. Doing something you’regood at can help ease stress, so do an activity you enjoy to promote a positive sense of wellbeing and boost your self-esteem.”

For more information on the symptoms of stress visit AXA PPP healthcare’s Stress Centre.

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