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For most of us, stress is a normal part of everyday life. For some people, the rat race of work and rush hour traffic creates stress. For others, it can be caused by a first date, a looming deadline, or problems with a relationship. But while stress is universal to all people, the way people react to stress can be very different. Researchers now recognize that some of these different reactions are gender-specific. In other words, women and men tend to have different physical and mental reactions to stress and tend to use different strategies to cope with stress.
Studies prior to 1995 showed the most common reaction to stress is a “fight-or-flight” response.
Most research prior to that year used only men as test subjects. Women were excluded from most research studies both to protect them during their childbearing years and to prevent monthly hormone fluctuations from adding too much variation to results. It was assumed and men and women were basically the same.
In1995, changes in government policy controlling how grant money is allocated opened the door for researchers to include women in research studies, including studies on responses to stress. Since then, studies have shown that, unlike men, women display a “tend-and befriend” reaction to stress. This includes nurturing children (tend) and turning to other people for support (befriend).
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine used brain imaging to study how men and women react to stress. They used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to see what parts of the brain responded to stress. Sixteen men and 16 women each performed a math test that required them to repeatedly subtract 13 from a 4-digit number. The researchers added pressure by demanding faster results and by making the test subject start over if he or she made a mistake.
The study showed that blood flow increased to different parts of the brain for men and women during the test. The limbic system, a portion of the brain which is primarily involved in emotion, was activated in women but not in men.