Why and How Do Men and Women Handle Stress Differently?

The stress response is often a mix of emotions and physical reactions. Different genders are known to have different responses when it comes to handling stressful situations, but how?

According to experts, here’s how men and women handle stress differently.

Dr. Charles Sweet MD, MPH

Charles Sweet

Psychiatry Specialist, Specialty Clinic (Austin)

What is stress? It’s bad is what it is. Wait, no, sometimes it can be good, right?
Maybe, maybe not. For the purposes of this discussion let’s say that stress is an event or challenge to someone that causes a negative response in some way. Be it anxiety, tension, etc. You get the picture. “S T R E S S .”

Do men and women handle stress differently?

Hormone balances are different so that plays a role

Probably. Hormone balances are different so that plays a role. Both sexes release cortisol and epinephrine in comparable amounts when stressed.

More oxytocin is produced by women, however, and this helps to combat rises in cortisol and epinephrine. This can produce a calming effect, so if you’re calmer, you’re less stressed.

Oxytocin is thought to be related to connectedness also – it is released when a mother breastfeeds her child, for example. This helps to strengthen the mother-child bond.

What about upbringing?

Gender roles, parental role models – all play a part undoubtedly

Probably. Gender roles, parental role models – all play a part undoubtedly. Hysteria was a stress reaction that women were thought to have because of their uterus. This of course is not true, but ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans thought that was the case. Freud and others had theories on this as well.

Traditional gender roles around men consist of being strong and not showing weakness. Putting up a fake front to conform to this gender role brings about more stress, as one can imagine it would.

Coping

In general, women tend to be better about reaching out to their support network when they are stressed. They vent and then they feel better. Men tend to not do that because of perceived weakness that may show. Men are more likely to abuse alcohol as an unhealthy way to cope with stress, compared to women.

We are all human

In the end, we are all human and can learn to cope with stress. Men and women can learn the value of supportive social networks when stressful times occur. Having a halfway balanced diet can make a difference too. That doesn’t mean all vegan, all organic, etc. it just means try not to eat junk food all the time.

Get some sleep – it may not make the stress go away but it will definitely help you cope with it better. Get moving and you’ll feel better. Go for a walk, ride your bike and decompress. Try meditation or mindfulness. There are lots of healthy ways to cope with stress both for men and for women.

Geny B. Zapata, Psy. D.

Geny Zapata

Licensed Psychologist | Director of Behavioral Sciences, White Memorial Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program

Being human means feeling, and for this reason, most human beings will experience a reaction to some level of stress in their lifetime. Stress is understood to be caused by things that occur in our environments/experiences that are external.

Some examples of stressors are when:

  • We are dealing with uncertainty.
  • We need to adapt constantly to change, such as what has been experienced during the pandemic.
  • We have high level of responsibilities.
  • We experience conflict or have arguments with a partner, spouse, friend, co-worker.
  • We are dealing with a strict timeline to finish projects for work or school.

When one is stressed, you will usually notice that if the thing that is causing you to be stressed is addressed and resolved, that your level of stress improves, and you begin to feel more at ease.

A popular inquiry related to stress is how men and women handle stress differently. The answer to this inquiry can get pretty involved, as it is understood as primarily driven by hormones that are gender-specific but also shaped by the type of stressors present in an individual’s life, the presence of coping resources, and/or previous experiences that have contributed to shaping an individual’s learned responses to stress.

Stress and its response is an equally opportunistic experience that will be a unique journey for each individual to find a way to address stress with their own abilities, skills, and resources.

Hormones and the Stress Reaction

According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky (an American neuroendocrinology researcher and author), cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin play a critical role in the stress response for individuals.

In his research, he notes that oxytocin is the hormone that has helped to provide further understanding into how men and women differ in their reactions to stress.

The author states that when women are presented with a stressful situation, the hormone oxytocin counters the production of cortisol and epinephrine, which promotes more nurturing and relaxing emotions. On the other hand, men have been found to secrete oxytocin in smaller amounts, which helps us to begin understanding the difference in stress responses between men and women.

Symptoms and Stress Management

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the perception and appraisal of how men and women perceive and report their experience with stress differ. The APA notes that women are more likely to report experiencing stress than men when it comes to money, and that some of the greatest stressors reported by men are related to work.

While both genders understand that stress can negatively impact their mental and physical health, men and women across research studies related to gender and stress have demonstrated that they have different ways of managing their symptoms.

Some of the symptoms associated with stress for both genders have been identified as:

  • sadness
  • nervousness
  • worry
  • muscular tension
  • changes in appetite
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • decreased energy
  • decreased motivation
  • headaches
  • stomach-related issues (e.g., indigestion)
  • crying

Noting the possible reactions and symptoms to the experience of stress, the APA reported finding that women and men have differing ways of managing stress.

Women were reported as most likely than men to seek out connection with others for support

Women were reported as most likely than men to seek out connection with others for support (e.g., spending time with family, calling friends, attend religious services) and engage in activities that provided further calm or helped them release energy, such as reading or exercising. Another noted finding in stress management for women was that women were reported as more likely to eat as a way of managing stress.

Men were found to manage stress by being active playing sports, further adding that men had reported that it was task-oriented and because it gave them something to do, it helped them to manage stress.

Additional Stress Management Ideas

Recognizing that stress is unique to each individual regardless of gender, it is important to remember that our experience with stress gives us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves in the experience. Perhaps it is how to cope up with a plan for when we are in such situations, reflecting on what has helped us move through symptoms we’ve experienced, or how to accept what is not within our control.

Here are some additional strategies that have been found to assist in reducing stressors to improve the quality of mental and physical functioning are:

  • making lists and checking off responsibilities
  • draft out a plan for how you will address taking care of timelines
  • give yourself mental breaks where you do something that is fun for you
  • engage in activities that allow you to feel relaxed and more focused (exercise, meditation, talking with friends, have tea, go to a movie, sleep, nutrition).

Taking a moment to pause to reflect on your experience, identifying what is being felt in your body, how you are feeling, and looking at what type of stressor is contributing to you feeling this way will allow you to have a space to disconnect and have more clarity on what to do about the situation and help yourself to do engage in doing something that makes you feel better.

Additionally, connecting with others may allow you to feel heard, understood, supported and help you find solutions to address your stressors.

Being that as human beings, we will have different life experiences that can lead to stress. If one begins to notice that they have stress or have a lot of stressors in their life, please begin to address them and practice to reduce them to prevent them from becoming an experience that leads to mental health symptoms or conditions.

If you notice that the symptoms have increased to a level that does not feel manageable, has caused a change in the way you feel or behave, please do not hesitate to contact your medical or mental health provider. Healthcare healers are there to assist you, listen and support you through the experience.

Dr. Brynna Connor, MD

Brynna Connor

Healthcare Ambassador, NorthWestPharmacy

Men have “fight or flight” response while women have “tend and befriend” reaction

There is definitely a difference in the stress response between men and women. Stress initiates the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary) for certain, and from here, it branches out. This then further accentuates that each gender is different in many ways.

When encountering stress or a stressful stimulus, men produce more adrenaline and cortisol than women, so the “fight or flight” response is engaged, and this is truly and measurably more pronounced.

Often in men, this results in sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and the impulse to more readily engage this “fight or flight” response.

In women, however, the release of oxytocin is activated by the sympathetic nervous system—which is often termed the “tend and befriend” reaction.

The results and responses by gender (male vs. female) are very real.

In addition, a study from 2011 further delineates that men have a higher cortisol level at baseline than women and that women do not emit the stress response as strong as men do—it’s fascinating, really.

Of note, however, the stress response specifically builds on attachment caregiving processes in females. This tends to buffer the sympathetic and HPA arousal. In men, studies do show that stress activates the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and in turn, the Left Orbitofrontal Cortex is actually suppressed by stress.

The PFC is an important part of both the negative emotion and men’s vigilance, and the left orbitofrontal cortex is actually associated with positive emotion in both women and men. In times of stress, the latter mentioned body system is suppressed in men.

Though to the contrary, the limbic system underlies the stress response in females, which triggers the more nurturing reaction—as limbic activation to stress in female results in the ‘tend-and-befriend’ result, rather than a ‘fight-or-flight’ model.

Also, whether it’s friends, family, or a support group, women like to tell their stories, whereas men often find an “escape” in order to relieve them from the stress they encountered. They are often much better at finding a diversion—golf, for example—and most men do not start a golf game with their buddies and stop to talk about their feelings or stress amongst each other.

This has also been articulated in a study from 2019.

Jocelyn Patterson, LMHC, ATR

Jocelyn Patterson

Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Registered Art Therapist, Better Help

Thanks to the recent curiosity and work in the area of vulnerability, we can now see that it’s connected to many important mental health topics–like an intricate spider’s web where vulnerability is the spider, spinning its web wider and wider until its connections are infinite!

Men were taught to show less vulnerability than women

Vulnerability is an experience in which you communicate genuine information about yourself and are then susceptible to others’ feedback and perceptions. Vulnerability means taking an emotional risk, to put it simply.

Recent studies on vulnerability (thanks to Brené Brown), along with first-hand reports, have shown that the experience of vulnerability is different between men and women. Historically, men have been told to ‘rub some dirt in it‘ or that ‘crying is for girls’.

Over time, the stereotype has been created that men shouldn’t be vulnerable if they wish to be strong and masculine. That leads to the stuffing of emotions. Holding it all in to reel and contort inside. It’s no surprise that this is taxing on our mental and physical well-being.

The thing about stress is that it’s an emotion, or a feeling. We feel stressed. In order to get help in caring for that stress…expressing that stress…we often have to tell someone else that it’s happening. Because of gender stereotypes, it may be more comfortable for a woman (due to frequency of experience and understanding of acceptability) to express that she is stressed.

From a woman’s perspective, I’ve had close to zero instances in which I felt uncomfortable telling someone I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed. For a man who has adhered to gender stereotypes for an extended period of time, more stress may compound even at the thought of letting someone know it’s there.

Therefore, we see more women engaging in self-care tasks like going to the spa, meditating, or creating art… Those tasks have been labeled as stereotypically women’s. If there is one takeaway from this text, it should be this: In order to deal with stress, someone will inevitably have to know that it’s there.

Michael Blanton, MBA, CTRC

Michael Blanton

Certified Trauma Recovery Coach, Lions Pride Coaches

Are gender roles in dealing with stress inherently toxic?

Big boys don’t cry; or do they? How can we help them?

From my experience as a male coach for men, we often discuss environmental stress (from one’s place of work, daily predicaments with family and relationships, even commuter traffic nightmares) and how these factors impact upon our internal stress systems (expectations being met, perfectionism versus mistakes, fear of failure, and resentments) that can lead to anxiety or depression.

Women have been historically and generally portrayed as ‘overly emotional’ or dramatic when it comes to expressing their feelings in stressful times.

While this characterization is highly generalized and not altogether accurate or fair, it does come with the distinct advantage of the knowledge that when a woman feels overwhelmed by life circumstances and wants to vent or have ‘a good cry,’ she knows that she can normally do so without society, in general, questioning her female identity.

Not so much for men, however. Nearly from birth, men are routinely extolled to ‘man up’ because ‘big boys don’t cry’ in a society that expects males to put their feelings and concurrent stressors on the back burner.

Men generally are expected to be constantly available to serve in whatever capacity is needed, without taking time to address any inner strife.

Women can also experience disdain from family, co-workers, and bosses for letting their stress become expressed through emotion, but it is generally accepted in many corners, and often in some circles, encouraged for its authenticity and honesty. A man might also be allowed to cry, say, at the funeral of a very close family member, but only then and for a limited amount of time before he might lose his ‘man card.’

While there are certainly arguments to be made in, say, a time of war when orders need execution without hesitation and question, the suppression of stress has been proven to lead to PTSD in combat veterans long after the actual terrors of war have been left behind.

And because we want a group of male persons prepared for war, or manual labor, or whatever variety of tasks society has deemed more appropriate for men rather than women, this same attitude of rewarding stoic behavior and shaming emotional releases in our men has created generations of emotionally unavailable men who internalize stress with no idea how to process it.

Anger and frustration, in moderation, are acceptable and able to be dealt with through working out and playing contact sports, but more subtle emotions like sadness, shame, and fear are rarely given space and an outlet for speaking up without being left with an impression of letting down family, co-workers, and society in general.

And yet, there is a clarion call for men to divorce themselves from ‘toxic masculinity’ while still living in the reality of an environment that often requires such a lifestyle and undermines other healthy roles outside of the accepted norms.

We can only hope that as this topic attracts more conversation about the importance of healthy mental health and stress relief for both women and men, that progress can be made to restore some healthy parity to stress management. Our society overall will be better for it.

Marisa OlGrady-Kessner

Marisa Kessner

Burnout Coach | Founder and CEO, Grounding Source

Men and women experience stress differently because of the way that society is set up

Stress & burnout are understood in our society. Everyone knows what it feels like to be stressed yet we almost never create change to the underlying factors that are causing our stress. This leaves many of us in a state of “chronic stress”.

Stress is not inherently bad. However, if we are not taught to complete our stress cycle, we will have a society that is burnt out.

The top three reasons for burnout (AKA too much stress) are:

  • Emotional exhaustion: doing too much for too long.
  • Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring & compassion.
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

Let’s look at how and why men & women respond to stress differently:

We expect more from women.

Women not only have to be phenomenal at their jobs, but they also have to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. This expectation slowly wears on women throughout their lives.

How this shows up: Women are not allowed to respond emotionally to anything at work.

Even if a male counterpart is allowed to get angry in a meeting, a woman cannot do this and be taken seriously. She has to consistently regulate her emotions, which means she doesn’t get to feel her emotions, which means that she is storing that emotional process in her body. This is the definition of emotional exhaustion.

This expectation of women is why they tend to be burnt out more intensely and more often than men.

Men have an easier time compartmentalizing “work stress” because they do not also have to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others- as per society’s guidelines.

As a larger society, we do not have the same expectation of men.

They are allowed to show anger or frustration at work, they are allowed to come home and not be attentive to others. They can sit on the couch and drink a beer and overall they are allowed to not be “pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others”.

This means they likely are able to recognize their stress and burnout faster and it is more acceptable for them to do things to alleviate their stress like having a boys’ night, exercise after work (and not have to cook) or immerse themselves in a good funny movie.

This is not to say that women can’t also do these things, it’s just that it is harder for them to do tasks for themselves because it is seen as selfish. Women are not praised for being selfish.

Men & women experience stress differently because of the way that society is set up, the way we are socialized, and what is glorified as ways to complete your stress cycle.

Erik Anderson, LMFT

Erik Anderson

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Erik Anderson Therapy

Women engage in emotionally focused coping while men engage in problem-focused coping

One way stress affects men and women differently appears in what psychologists refer to as internalizing versus externalizing disorders.

Externalizing disorders are where psychological distress is directed at the environment in the form of defiance and misconduct. Internalizing disorders are where psychological distress is directed inward towards the self in the form of depression, withdrawal, and anxiety.

In adolescence and adulthood, boys are more likely to exhibit externalizing disorders, and girls are more likely to exhibit internalizing disorders.

One interesting difference in how men and women relate to stress shows up in how they express aggression.

  • In little boys, we see more rough-and-tumble play; in adolescent boys, we see more physical aggression.
  • In little girls, we see more role-playing; in adolescent girls, we see more relational aggression.

Over the last ten years, we haven’t seen a significant change in outlets for physical aggression, but we have seen the rise of social media.

Social media is an outlet for adolescent girls to express and experience aggression by jockeying for reputation, socially excluding, and spreading rumors. We’ve seen a dramatic change in rates of internalizing disorders in girls over the last ten years in the form of a significant rise in the rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

In adulthood, men are more likely to report feeling lonely and to have few close friends. About twice as many men as women exhibit substance use disorders. Men are about four times more likely to die by suicide.

About twice as many women as men exhibit depression. Women are about twice as likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and somewhere between two to four times as likely to experience an eating disorder. Men can expect to die about five years earlier than women, but women are more likely to have serious health conditions.

Related: How to Help Someone With PTSD

Why is this the case? These differences arise from biological sources, which are amplified by a social environment where we have divergent gender roles.

Despite these particular differences, in general, adult men and women overlap in how they experience and respond to stress — most of the differences are marginal. Polls have found that men are less likely to acknowledge that stress is affecting them negatively or to acknowledge that they might not be doing enough to manage their stress.

To manage stress:

  • Women are more likely to report that they read, eat, go to church, or spend time with family and friends
  • Men are more likely to report they play sports or listen to music, but also more likely to say they don’t do anything to try and manage their stress.

A body of research suggests that men and women vary on whether they engage in problem-focused or emotionally-focused coping when responding to stress.

  • Women are more likely to engage in emotionally focused coping, which involves regulating feelings and talking with others.
  • Men are more likely to engage in problem-focused coping, which involves preparing and working on direct solutions for the stressor.

Dr. Laura Louis

Laura Louis

Licensed Psychologist | Owner, After I Do Academy

Men tend to ignore or repress stresses while women are generally more in tune with their feelings

It’s completely natural that men and women handle stress differently, as we are socialized in different ways. Men are often socialized via toxic masculinity to bottle in their feelings and stress; they are often told when they are children that crying and showing vulnerability is “bad” because it makes them comparable to women and makes them look “weak.”

Because men tend to ignore or repress stresses and intense feelings, they are more likely to blow up randomly one day after a small inconvenience.

A lot of men indulge in activities to let out their aggression (i.e. boxing, other more aggressive sports) instead of actually dealing with the stressors. Men also lack healthy outlets to vent. They may not feel comfortable sharing how they’re feeling or how stressed they are with people around them.

On the other hand, women are generally more in tune with their feelings.

Therefore, the more they are able to recognize what they’re feeling, the more they are likely to try to do something to change that. Many women might find yoga, journaling, or meditation helpful in relieving stress.

Related: 17 Best Meditation Books

The ways in which men and women cope with stress directly relates to the way we’re socialized. Men cope in more aggressive, “masculine” ways, while women resort to more calm, “feminine” coping mechanisms.

Rich Heller, MSW, CPC, ELI MP

Rich Heller

Therapist | Coach | Mediator, Rich in Relationship

All human beings have a masculine and feminine side. Historically, we have defined these qualities as those of men and those of women. It is certainly true that the female and male anatomies and chemistry can influence a person to lean into their masculine and feminine sides more heavily.

However, this is still a choice. We are our bodies and we are more than our bodies.

  • The masculine approach to stress is to identify the “problem” and take action. Super goal-oriented, and often can result in operating in isolation.
  • While, the feminine approach leans towards exploration in sharing of stress rather than “fixing” the problem.

It is super relational. Is one approach better than another? That can only be gauged situationally.

What is certainly true is that one approach without the other will be less likely to succeed. Attacking a problem without exploring it first and understanding it leads to solutions that either do not fully work or outright fail.

Exploring and understanding may resolve some problems, particularly those based on misunderstandings between people, but will fail in situations that require planning and stage. Ideally, engaging both masculine and feminine sides will yield the best results.

Women tend to talk it out while men tend to see more escapist behaviors

I think there are some general statements we can make about how men and women handle stress differently- however, we don’t want to downplay the ways in which what was modeled by the generations before us (our caregivers and their caregivers before them) impacts our approaches to stress and stress management as well.

As children, the ways we see responses to stress handled by the adults in our lives and how they teach us to respond to stress can impact us regardless of our gender.

If we saw mom or dad engaging in healthy coping skills to handle their stress levels and approaching stressful situations in a calm and cool manner, then we are likely to approach stressful circumstances the same way.

In generalized terms, we can talk about some of the hormones that come into play in the stress response. These are the same for men and women—hormones like cortisol and oxytocin.

For cortisol, in particular, the levels of this hormone in response to stressful situations are less about whether you are male or female and more about the intensity of the circumstances. It is here, however, that we must add a caveat.

If a person has had pervasive and chronic stressors and/or traumas, particularly in their developmental years, then their response (hormonally speaking, and in relation to the Flight/Fight/Freeze Response) will be significantly higher than those who do not have such occurrences in their history.

While the amount of cortisol secreted isn’t determined by our gender, the amount of oxytocin in response to cortisol might be. Oxytocin is at the top of the list in terms of mitigating the effects of cortisol, and research seems to show that women secrete more than men.

It is more than likely because of the heightened ability to produce and secrete oxytocin that women tend to lean more heavily into talking it out and even nurturing others in response to their own stress/stressors, while men tend to see more escapist behaviors to distract from stress.

However, I want to stress this is not universally true.

Ravi Kathuria

Ravi Kathuria

Business Mentor | Founder HappySoulHungryMind.com | Author, Happy Soul, Hungry Mind

Women know how to be empathetic while men tend to bottle it up

Most people believe stress is created by external circumstances or what life does to them. The reality is stress is created by our minds. Stress is a cause of how much the mind resists and delves on the situation.

Women and men handle stress differently for one primary reason. Women have a stronger network of friends and family members. Women are trained to share their feelings, they are comfortable doing it.

Women know how to be empathetic.

Men struggle to share. They are big talkers, but not so much when it comes to sharing how they are feeling. Men tend to bottle it up. Men are also not used to helping their friends emotionally as much as women. This makes it challenging for men to give and receive emotional help.

One way to reduce stress is to talk about it openly and deeply. Making yourself vulnerable and open to receiving help can reduce stress. Men need to learn from women so they can manage their stress better.

In my non-religious, spirituality parable, “Happy Soul. Hungry Mind,” Travis struggles with the sudden death of his young son. He lacks a network of friends, colleagues and relatives, to whom he can reach out to for help. His business and family situations push him to the breaking point. His wife, on the other hand, while experiencing the same tragedy, deals with it much better than Travis. Her support mechanisms are strong and they help her. Travis finds himself all alone.

Men seek help, but sometimes, they wait until the stress reaches alarming levels before seeking that much needed and critical help.

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