Here is a bit of news bound to make you uptight: fully 79 percent of Americans report feeling stress sometimes or frequently on a typical day, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Stress can make you irritable and depressed. Higher levels of stress can harm your health, and might even be life-threatening for some people.
Whether you are male or female plays a role in how stress impacts you, says Dr. Randy Kamen, a psychologist and author of “Behind the Therapy Door: Simple Strategies to Transform Your Life.”
“Men and women do respond differently to stress,” she says.
Why stress impacts men and women differently
Hormones play a key role in why men and women respond differently to stress. When you are stressed, the brain releases a rush of hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin. That is true for both sexes.
However, women release considerably more oxytocin than do men. Oxytocin creates a relaxed feeling and the need for nurturing. That impacts how women react to stress.
“Women tend to become more prosocial, seeking out friends and hunkering down when in the throes of stress,” Kamen says.
By contrast, men do not get such a large rush of oxytocin, which tends to counter the production of cortisol and epinephrine. As a result, their reaction to stress is different.
Kamen says that unlike women, men are less likely to seek out the support of others. Instead, they tend to withdraw and to respond to stress with a typical “fight or flight” response.
What causes men and women to feel stressed
Stress impacts men and women differently on both a mental and physical level. For starters, women are more likely to say they feel stressed.
“Their most common sources of stress have to do with body image and relationships with friends, family and colleagues,” Kamen says.
My contrast, sources of stress for men tend to revolve around work, money and their relationships with their partners.
Whatever the source of stress, it can take a major toll on your health. In fact, stress makes every symptom and illness worse, Kamen says.
“Stress-related issues are the number one reason that people seek out medical attention of one kind or another,” she says.
Conditions and illness that stress exacerbates include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Cognitive and memory deficits
- Digestive issues
- Heart disease
- Pain of any kind
- Reproductive problems
- Skin conditions
- Weight issues
Stress also causes symptoms such as chronic fatigue, constant worry, racing thoughts and poor decision-making.
Other symptoms associated with stress include memory loss, chronic pain, rapid breathing and chest pain, loss of sex drive and frequent illnesses.
Because stress is such a common part of life, it’s easy to overlook the dangers associated with it.
“Most of us are so accustomed to living with chronic stress that we don’t even consider the idea that its impact can be slowly destroying our lives,” Kamen says.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the impact of stress in your life.
Kamen says the three best strategies women can use to reduce stress are abdominal breathing, exercise and fostering friendships with other women.
The prescription for men is similar – except Kamen recommends fostering friendships with other men.
The American Psychological Association also recommends several other tips for reducing stress. They include:
- Taking breaks when you feel stressed. A mere 20-minute break from a stressful situation can work wonders, according to the APA.
- Smiling and laughing. Research shows that the mere act of consciously trying to be more joyful can reduce the amount of tension you feel.
- Enjoying your favorite activities. Simple pleasures such as gardening, playing music and creating art can significantly reduce stress levels.