When it comes to the human response to stress, we have all heard of the phrase ‘fight or flight.’ But did you know that this may only refer to the male stress response?
UCLA psychologists Dr Shelley Taylor and Dr Laura Klein along with their colleagues discovered that up until 1995, only 17% of studies on stress involved women. Apparently this inequality was because the menstrual cycle made the female stress response ‘unpredictable.’ Officially ‘there was an inconsistency in the results obtained from female subjects due to fluctuations in hormone levels during menstruation cycles.’ Ha! Basically, the female stress response didn’t follow a clear pattern so they didn’t include it.
The UCLA psychologists set out to conduct research on the female response to stress, and they found marked differences in men and women when it came to behaviours associated with stress.
Women respond to stress by protecting themselves and their children through nurturing behaviours (‘TENDING’) and forming connections among their wider social group (‘BEFRIENDING’). This explains why many women want to talk through a situation and look at it from a variety of different angles whereas many men would prefer to solve a problem and be done with it.
The different responses are linked to our hormones. Women release oxytocin when we are stressed, which has a calming effect and leads to nurturing behaviours. Men, on the other hand, produce high levels of testosterone when they are stressed, which cancels out the effects of the oxytocin.
The research can be summed up by one sentence: WOMEN TALK, WHILE MEN WALK.
This research has implications for our legal system, which bases the model of ‘the reasonable person’ on the fight or flight response when it comes to the defences of self-defence and provocation. It appears that men and women react quite differently in threatening situations and the law should respond to that.
It also means that women need a close social circle that they can depend on. In fact, the Nurses Health Study from Harvard Medical School suggested that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop serious physical impairments as they aged and the more likely they were to be leading joyful lives. In fact, the study concluded that not having close friends for a woman was as detrimental as smoking or carrying extra weight.