As it turns out, that opening scene in the classic movie, Ghostbusters, wasn’t too far off the mark for one psychology research study that delivered electrical shocks to subjects.
The study by Stanley Schachter, Ph.D. involved deception and told research participants that they would be receiving an electric shock as part of the study. The results found that female participants, after hearing this, wanted to wait in the waiting room with other research participants. Male participants, however, wanted to wait alone.
Being told that you are about to receive an electric shock is certainly a stressful experience, but the interesting discovery was the very opposite ways in which men and women responded to this information. While the women preferred to be near others, the men preferred to be alone. These interesting research results illustrate that men and women tend to respond to stress in very different ways — with men often engaging in the “fight or flight” response, and women most often engaging in “tend and befriend” behavior.
All human beings react to stress in generally the same way: your sympathetic nervous system is activated. When your body prepares to fight, run, or freeze, depending on the real or perceived danger, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, your breathing becomes more shallow, and your muscle tension increases so that the body is ready to respond to the stressor as quickly as possible. Research has found one interesting twist to this stress response, however. While both men and women experience the sympathetic nervous system activation when encountering stress, that response is mitigated by the hormone oxytocin (and strengthened by the presence of estrogen). In addition to promoting a feeling of calm instead of stress, those hormones promote seeking connection over isolation in women.
So while men tend to have the “fight or flight” reaction to stress, women are more likely to experience the “tend and befriend” response. Researchers hypothesize that these responses likely have an evolutionary purpose from a time when men traditionally defended their family or tribe from danger while the women traditionally cared for the children and others in the family. The “fight or flight” response would enable the men to respond to an unfriendly neighboring tribe or hungry animal quickly and effectively, while the “tend and befriend” response would help the women bring the rest of the family together for protection.
Of course, we also experience stressors today, and although they may look a little different than the ones our ancestors faced, they still affect us. Women report experiencing higher levels of stress related to the economy and money, while men report that they are more stressed by work. Women also tend to report higher levels of stress along with physical and emotional symptoms, while men tend to report experiencing lower levels of stress and fewer symptoms of stress — even though they are diagnosed more often with physical symptoms that can be exacerbated by stress (heart disease, high blood pressure, type-two diabetes, and heart attacks).
Men and women also use different coping strategies to manage stress. For example, men are more likely to report relying on sports to cope with stress, while women are more likely to report relying on strategies such as spending time with family and friends, going to religious services, going to a spa, or seeing a mental health professional.
How do we apply these research findings to our everyday lives? We can use this knowledge to better understand how to effectively cope with stress. It can also deepen our appreciation for the different ways in which loved ones or friends might respond to stress (without stereotyping gender roles). In other words, we can acknowledge the benefits of “fight or flight” as a stress response while preferring to use “tend and befriend,” or vice versa.
For example, the next time you find yourself stressed, pause and ask yourself if seeking out the support of someone might be beneficial and choose an activity that will help you feel connected to others. But if your friend or significant other prefers to take action and deal with the stressor immediately, you can support their preference even if it isn’t what you’d find helpful.
It’s important to note that the differences discussed here are generalizations based on research findings — individual responses can differ. Human beings are unique and don’t always fit neatly into one category over another, so if you are a woman and find yourself more often seeking isolation over connection, don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you. And if you are a man who prefers to seek connection over isolation when stressed, you are in good company! It’s also important to emphasize that one response isn’t better than the other. There are pros and cons to both, and neither should be seen as the preferred response.