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Women and Stress

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Updated May 12, 2006

Women and Stress

The fight-or-flight response has been described for years as the typical way that people respond to stress. Research by Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. and her colleagues has complicated the picture. Taylor has coined the phrase "tend-and-befriend" to describe a very different pattern that her research group has found in women who are stressed. It seems that most of the earlier research on the fight-or-flight response was done using males. Taylor has found that females - even female animals from different species - respond differently to stress than males. Females under stress nurture themselves and their young ('tending') and form alliances with others ('befriending').

Does this mean that women do not respond to stress with the fight-or-flight response? Not necessarily. The fight-or-flight response seems to be present in women under acute stress. The tend-and-befriend response then seems to kick-in, and the women respond differently then men. Female animals may need to protect their young in a stressful situation. Fleeing too soon would be a problem. Taylor's research suggests that hormones may play a role in these differences. Males under stress produce androgens such as testosterone in addition to stress hormones such as cortisol. Animal studies suggest that females produce oxytocin, which produces a feeling of relaxation, reduces fear, and decreases some components of the fight-or-flight response. Oxytocin is also involved in social memory and in childbirth.

Taylor has been quoted as reporting that most stress researchers in the past have been very quick to study behaviors like aggression and withdrawal and have failed to notice very important behaviors like affiliation. We think it's cute when women call up their sisters when they're under stress. But no one has realized that that is a contemporaneous manifestation of one of the oldest biological systems. Our focus on fight-or-flight has kept us from recognizing that there are systems that are as old as fight-or-flight that are tremendously important. (Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. quoted by Azar 7/00)

Taylor's research was published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review. Expect to see others looking at the role that gender plays in our responses to stress in the future.

Last updated 5/10/06

Source: Azar, Beth. A New Stress Paradigm for Women. APA Monitor, July/August 2000.

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