Physical Differences Determine How Men And Women Handle Stress

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, October 25, 2015
Too much work
“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.” —Trudy, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (1985)

In A Nutshell

After a stressful day, many men withdraw and many women look for outside support. It turns out, there’s a scientific reason men and women usually deal with stress differently, and it has to do with some major differences in the male and female brains. When male rat brains were exposed to a stress hormone, the brain was able to stop its reception of the hormone, while female brains didn’t. Male brains—especially the brains of men with high testosterone levels—show a decrease in activity in the portion of the brain that reacts and processes facial features when subjected to stress. That all means that it’s very likely there’s a biological reason that women are more susceptible to stress than men, and it may also mean we need to reevaluate how medicines impact the brain based on gender.

The Whole Bushel

In general, men and women tend to handle stress in very different ways. Men generally withdraw, and women generally seek outside support. With more and more research being done on stress and how it acts on the brain, we’re finding out that the difference in how we react to stress has less to do with how we’re raised and more to do with what’s going on in the brain.

According to findings by psychologists at the University of Southern California, some of the most clearly defined gender differences they’ve found in the brain happen when they start looking at a brain under stress. Researchers had groups of men and women hold their hands in freezing water for three minutes then look at pictures of either angry or neutral faces while undergoing a brain scan. In men, the scans showed little activity in the area of that brain that’s been linked to our ability to process faces and the emotions in those faces. In women, that part of the brain became much more active—twice as active as the control group of non-stressed women.

They also found a link to testosterone. The higher the men’s original testosterone levels, the lower the functionality in that part of the brain, suggesting that there’s a hormonal connection to how the brain reacts in stressful situations.

Another study from Rutgers looked at the difference between the stress-related wiring in the male and female prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Together, these two parts of the brain are connected with our ability to learn, and when under stress, the genders react very differently.

In exercises using rats, researchers first exposed the rats to a stressful situation, then to a learning-related task. They added a particular tone to get the rats to blink, and in theory, the rats should have associated everything—the stress, the tone, and the task. Once the stimulus was removed, the male rats continued to respond; they’d learned the connection.

Female rats hadn’t. Not, that is, until researchers looked at what was going on in the brain. In female rats, the two parts of the brain were in constant communication, and when that communication was disrupted, they showed the same learning capability that was present in male rats. It suggests that males and females are reacting differently to stress and processing it in completely different ways with completely different outcomes.

And in yet another study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, it was found that the brains of female rats were less able to adapt to the presence of stress hormones than the brains of males. When male brains were subjected to the presence of a stress hormone, many of their receptor cells simply shut down. Female brains didn’t have the same defense mechanism, making them not only more receptive to the hormone, but more reactive to it as well. Researchers found that it took less of the hormone to raise the stress levels of the female rats than the male rats, making it a likely reason for why women are more sensitive to stress.

The findings bring up some fascinating ideas and some frustrating problems. Women are more than twice as likely to develop a stress-related disorder, and understanding what’s going on in the female brain can help medical professionals understand why that is.

But there’s a problem, too, and that comes in the development of drugs that are marketed to the general public. When a Northwestern University research group started looking at the parts of the brain that govern stress and memory, they found that the differences are so great, it might mean taking a new look at the medicines that are prescribed to treat conditions like epilepsy. The current thinking, that there’s no real difference in the brain based on gender, is becoming obsolete, and with it has to go the idea that medicines will work the same when prescribed to women as they will when prescribed to men.

Show Me The Proof

LiveScience: Stress Brings Out the Difference in Male, Female Brains
Futurity: Female Brain Super-Sensitive To Stress
National Institute of Mental Health: Findings in Rats Could Explain Women’s Increased Vulnerability to Disorders
Northwestern University: Scientists Uncover A Difference Between the Sexes