It's a Scientific Fact: Stress Hits Women Differently from Men

Since the early days of human history, stress has gotten our ancestors out of some sticky situations. When confronted with danger, the body’s stress response helps make split-second decisions on whether it’s better to fight or run away. One wrong move could make you someone’s dinner. 

Sometimes the answer was clear—if you messed with a wasp nest, run away as fast as you can. But as humans evolved, the stress response adjusted to better react to the type of threats men and women would normally encounter. Men were mainly hunters, for example, and would need to get aggressive to chase prey and put food on the table. Women provided support through farming and taking care of the home, requiring more cooperation with others. 

Nowadays, most of us aren’t looking over our shoulders in fear of a tiger attack. But stress still exists, the threats just look different. A looming deadline at work or figuring out how to pay your mortgage next month can trigger the stress response because they jeopardize your livelihood. But because men and women have historically dealt with different stressors, there is a split in how the body reacts under pressure.

When the brain gets a whiff of stress, it sets off an alarm via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This system secretes several hormones that promote changes to your body and increase the chance of survival against a threat. This is the reason you feel your muscles tighten, your heart pounding faster, and your blood pressure rise when under stress as your body prepares to fight or flee.

Stress activates different brain circuits in men and women

Beyond activating the HPA axis, men and women respond differently to stress. Men show greater activation of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in rational decision-making. When under stress, the prefrontal cortex helps rein in wild thoughts and avoid emotional outbursts.

The prefrontal cortex is also activated in women during stress. Compared to men, women typically show greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, explains Aditya Kashyap Mishra, a relationship expert and co-founder of MoodFresher. This area is involved in regulating emotion. 

Under stress, the prefrontal cortex is in close talks with the brain’s fear center called the amygdala. It lets the body know that it is still in danger and to continue with the stress response. Women more than men have a higher activation of the amygdala. With continued amygdala activity, Kashyap Mishra says women are vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress. Having chronic stress can impair the job of the prefrontal cortex to calm us down and affect the ability to control emotional responses to stress. 

Hormone levels

Carolina Estevez, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Infinite Recovery, says hormones are the main culprit behind the stress responses in men and women. 

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