Battle of the Sexes Revisited

Who handles stress better?

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


With all the bad news dominating the headlines, it’s no wonder that an unprecedented number of people are experiencing stress. Stress, like any other emotional issue, manifests in the body to get our attention. When you’re anxious and worried for long periods of time, it’s common to experience muscle tension, sleeplessness, anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue, and other conditions. People are also more irritable, quicker to anger, and even depressed. Men and women cope with stress differently. Men are likely to isolate themselves, whereas women are more apt to comfort others and seek help. So which way is better?

Dr. Northrup is eager to shed some light on the subject of staying healthy during stressful times. “One of the most fascinating studies ever done was the UCLA Friendship Study conducted by Shelley E. Taylor, Ph.D., and her colleague Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D. The study showed that women react to stressful situations by protecting their young—which the researchers call a “tend” response—and also by seeking out social contact and support from others, especially other women—known as the “befriend” response. This healthy, natural instinct to “tend and befriend” that many women employ has most likely protected the species.”

Dr. Northrup explains, “Bonding causes the release of the chemical oxytocin, a feel good chemical that neutralizes stress, and helps you feel calmer, more focused, and more connected to others. Oxytocin is released when friends comfort and help one another, and also when a mother nurses her baby. Oxytocin counteracts the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol—the same chemicals that cause chronic inflammation, raise blood pressure, lower your immune system, and leave you feeling on edge. Biologically, men will produce the same release of oxytocin when they spend time with loved ones. But their male hormones, especially testosterone, negate some of oxytocin’s positive effects.”

According to a study done by the American Psychology Association in mid-2008, women were more likely to be affected by stress due to money and the economy than men. Psychotherapist Jed Diamond, author of Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome, believes the opposite is true. His reason? Men are more isolated and more likely to have a smaller social support network.

When asked what she thinks about which gender handles stress better, Dr. Northrup said, “I can see why men are having such a hard time in today’s climate. Men often define themselves by what their career is and by how much money they have. It isn’t uncommon for a man to have only a handful of friends, relying solely on his wife for support. If a man loses his job, and that job is the only social connection he has, then he loses his identity and his ‘community.’

“I’ve often said that community equals immunity. The Friendship Study demonstrates that women, because they cope with stress by seeking out others, are more likely to stay healthy during times of prolonged stress. They’ve got the feel good hormone oxytocin on their side. Studies have also shown that social support provides protection against heart disease, mental illness, and many other health conditions—all while boosting the immune system! Having a connection to Spirit does the same thing.

“There is a time and place for everything, including being alone. When a man is under stress, he goes into fight-or-flight mode. Women do this too, of course. So it’s only natural that they would need to balance this by going into rest-and-restore mode—this is different than holding up in a cave, though.  Taking time away from what is stressing us to exercise, meditate, read, pray, or experience nature also heals the spirit and quells the stress response.”

Dr. Northrup continues, “I always tell men that if they want to live longer, hang out around good women who are fun and nurturing—and know how to treat them like the heroes they are. Thankfully, at midlife and beyond, men are more likely to turn their focus to their families, their communities, to hobbies, and places of worship, therefore widening their support network. This gives me every reason to believe that both sexes will ride the wave of this current crisis and come out stronger. In fact, statistics show that the mortality gap between men and women is getting smaller. It used to be that men died on average seven years before women. Now it’s down to five.

“My newest book The Secret Pleasures of Menopause Playbook, is filled with health-enhancing ways to decrease stress and increase pleasure,” Dr. Northrup adds. “Pleasure of all kinds boosts oxytocin. The best news is that almost all of the suggestions—based on the experiences of real women—don’t cost a thing. For example, if all else fails, both genders can call on this secret weapon: the surge of oxytocin you get from lovemaking and orgasm!”

Learn More — Additional Resources

Last Updated: May 18, 2009

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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