Do Women Experience Stress Differently To Men?

Delia McCabe DELIA MCCABE

Does it matter? And is it due to nurture or nature? The discussion about differences between the male and the female brain can quickly descend into a slinging match between these two groups.

‘Nurture’ followers prefer the idea that we become what our environment molds us into, and ‘nature’ followers prefer the idea that our genes mold us. Fortunately most people today concede that it’s a combination of the two and research supports this idea.

A complex discussion is never a clear-cut one, so this post isn’t going to delve into this complexity. 

Instead, we’re going to examine three factors that contribute to the female experience of stress, and possible reasons why women report higher levels of stress compared to men, globally.

Why is this important? Chronic stress leads to changes in the brain, regardless of gender, which leads to the development of disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

It, therefore, makes sense to prevent chronic stress considering it can lead to serious mental health challenges.

Furthermore, women report higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to men, globally. And research suggests that women may experience 50% more of such disorders than men. 

Although men may be less proactive and therefore fail to report mental health symptoms, many studies of both genders suggest this is not the only factor at play.

So, why do women experience higher levels of stress compared to men? And does this predispose them to experience anxiety and depression at these higher rates compared to men? 

Psychosocial Factors

Psychosocial factors include a number of different challenges, which include

  • Not having enough time to do what they need to do, aka juggling tasks and responsibilities.
  • Working both inside and outside the home.
  • Unchanging and ongoing domestic and care-taking roles.
  • Culture-specific stressors.
  • Non-traditional family structures.

Indeed, household labor studies, a decade apart, reveal that women perform more household and childcare activities compared to men. Current research in relation to Covid-19 has found the same pattern.

Furthermore, women’s levels of stress – as measured by cortisol – remain high after work, compared to men’s levels, which tend to drop. This is no surprise to any woman, as after work women move into what is known as their ‘second shift.’

Furthermore, because of the ‘unequal status of women in most societies across the world,’ cultural stressors such as sex-specific socialization and victimization, subordinate social rank, and violence also play roles in women’s increased stress vulnerability.

Global population studies find these trends exist across countries and cultures.

Neurobiological Factors

To find out what’s going on inside a living brain a variety of imaging technologies are used. Such sophisticated devices have shown that male and female brains differ according to how they function, their neurochemistry, and their hormonal state.

  • Women seem to experience a lower cortisol response to psychological stress – not because they are not feeling stressed – but because their stress response is less adaptive.
  • A part of the brain called the limbic system, where we regulate emotion and fear, seems to be more active when women are under chronic stress, compared to the limbic system of men.
  • There are high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the limbic system, and serotonin has important roles to play in keeping mood stable and allowing us to respond to stress optimally. High levels of stress impact serotonin activity.

So, a mal-adapted stress response, coupled with an overactive limbic system in the presence of stress, and a dip in serotonin, may all combine to heighten the perception of stress among women.

Women may therefore be more vulnerable to psychosocial stressors because of the way their brain responds to such stress.

Hormonal Factors

Women’s sex hormones fluctuate more over the same time period than men’s hormones fluctuate. And they impact neurotransmitters, the tiny messengers that our neurons use to communicate with each other.

The large fluctuations in levels of sex hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen, which occur throughout women’s reproductive life span, impact both neurotransmitter synthesis and function.

As hormone levels, ebb and flow, neurotransmitters like serotonin, are affected. This is how appetite and sleep are impacted at different times of the female reproductive cycle.

The receptors for these female hormones are highly expressed in the limbic system, which further explains how mood is also impacted by hormone fluctuations.

Studies have revealed that vulnerabilities to these hormone/neurotransmitter interactions may differ among women, with some women being more vulnerable than others. However, the interaction between these two powerful neural compounds can lead to mood shifts in many women, which may negatively impact their ability to cope with stress.

Furthermore, estrogen and progesterone levels of postmenopausal women may also affect their serotonin levels, so they may experience similar negative repercussions when exposed to chronic stress.

In conclusion, complex psychosocial challenges that increase stress levels, coupled with neurobiological differences and regular hormonal shifts, may combine and contribute to women’s increased vulnerability to the negative effects of chronic stress.

Strategies to minimize psychosocial stress, learning how to manage unavoidable stress, and improving hormonal health are all strategies that can improve stress resiliency among women.

How do you manage your stress? Do you notice you experience it differently from those around you? Let us know in the comments below.

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