Study Charts How Women, Men Tackle Stress Not Everyone Uses 'Fight or Flight'

The Florida Times Union, June 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

Study Charts How Women, Men Tackle Stress Not Everyone Uses 'Fight or Flight'


Contrary to established theory, men and women use radically different methods for coping with stress, a new study has concluded.

For decades, behavioral scientists have assumed that humans and many other animals of both sexes respond to acute stress with a "fight or flight" response, in which the body readies itself for either aggression or hasty withdrawal.

The new research, by six UCLA psychologists, challenges that view, arguing that the fight-or-flight dogma resulted from the fact that the vast majority of animals used to investigate the phenomenon were male rats, and that in human experiments, "women constituted about 17 percent of participants."

Recent observations, the researchers say, indicate that women, and females of numerous other species, typically employ a different response, which the psychologists term "tend and befriend."

When stress mounts, women are more prone to protect and nurture their children ("tend") and turn to social networks of supportive females ("befriend"). That behavior became prevalent over millennia of human evolution, the researchers speculate, because successful tenders and befrienders would be more likely to have their offspring survive and pass on their mothers' traits.

The tend-and-befriend response probably has a physiological basis, the UCLA group argues, in the form of a powerful hormone called oxytocin, produced deep in the brain and distributed by the pituitary gland.

Oxytocin is secreted at high levels in women during childbirth and aids in labor. But it is also produced in both sexes by stress, and exerts a calming influence. Estrogen, a female sex hormone, seems to amplify this effect, the researchers suggest, whereas androgens, male sex hormones, apparently diminish it.

That presumed difference, which the UCLA team plans to test in upcoming experiments using blood samples from stressed human subjects, could also help explain the fact that American women, on average, live 7.5 years longer than men.

The result may not be politically correct, but "it looks like a scientifically correct and valid conclusion," said psychologist James Campbell Quick, a stress expert at the University of Texas at Arlington. "It really sounds like they've got a ground-breaking paper there." The study will be published in a future issue of Psychological Review of the American Psychological Association.

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