Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from difficult circumstances. The release of stress hormones causes you to breathe faster as your heart races. The long-term effects of stress on the body can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as diabetes and obesity.
How stress affects the body includes an impact on thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Chronic stress can also have an impact on nervous, circulatory, immune, and digestive systems. But stress can mean different things to different people. And it has a strong relation to hormones. So, why do men and women handle stress differently?
Theories Past and Present
The “fight or flight” theory suggests when confronted with stress you stay and fight. Or run away. A new theory reports that women are more likely to cope with stress by “tending and befriending” – protecting themselves and children safely without distress. And creating and maintaining a social network that helps with this process.
The reason for this is the production of oxytocin that’s released from the brain when the two hormones cortisol and epinephrine rush into the bloodstream during stressful situations. This combination of hormones promotes relaxing and nurturing emotions.
Men also secrete the hormone oxytocin but in much smaller amounts. Therefore, the fight or flight response of fighting back or escaping comes into force.
Another response that has been noted recently is the “freeze” response. When neither option to fight or escape is viable, we may choose to freeze as this is the only way to survive. In this state we dissociate and leave the body to protect ourselves from the impact of the coming events. In this way the stress takes a physical toll causing a trauma to be stored in the body, and once the event has passed and the body is safe to inhabit once again, the consciousness of the person returns.
This is one of the strongest defenses in cases of high stress situations, but the impact it has on the body can be long-lasting if care is not taken to address the trauma as soon as possible. The long term effects of trauma induced stress result in PTSD and other complex disorders that have a huge toll in everyday life.
Stress and Relationships
Women will often let other people’s needs come first, while her own needs are ignored. Female self-esteem is based around adequacy of relationships. And loss of relationships is a great stress factor for women. Women are more likely than men to report when stress levels are rising and do a better job connecting with others and managing stress using these connections.
Male self-esteem is more often built around adequacy of performance and can be at risk of letting competition and challenges dictate. The level of demand for men is frequently set on objectives and winning. So, performance failure is the greatest stress factor for men.
Stress and Body Effects
During tests for mental stress in both men and women, scientists discovered that women experienced:
- High heart rates
- Widening of calf blood vessels – known as vasodilation
- Widening of forearm blood vessels
- High blood pressure in women after menopause
- High heart rates
- No changes in the calf
- Constriction of blood vessels in the leg – known as sympathetic vascular transduction
- High blood pressure
These effects prove that stress takes an enormous toll on the body, particularly the cardiovascular system. Increased heart rates and cardiovascular disease are both related to stress.
Stress is also a trigger for inflammation, causing auto-immune disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and affecting your digestive tract.
How to Manage Stress
Managing stress is also different for men and women. Women will often talk through emotional experiences with family or friends and will make plans on how to resolve any issues. Women generally prefer reading, spending time with family and friends, and sometimes eating to relax.
A lack of willpower is reported by many women to prevent changes in lifestyle. Less fatigue, more energy, and help with household tasks were all listed as needed to help improve willpower.
Men are more likely to escape from a stressful situation by becoming involved in relaxing diversions. Releasing tension by playing sport offers challenges without discussion. Listening to music or doing nothing at all are two other cited options.
Men often relate a lack of willpower to improve lifestyles with money. Exercise gives men a release with something they are good at and helps them keep fit and well.
How to Overcome Stress
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep are essential for all. But without addressing the source or the cause of stress, these events usually keep repeating in a pattern. In many psychological studies it has been shown that the origins of stress-inducing patterns have the origins in early life. As time passes these patterns start presenting them in different areas. Even though it may look different on the surface, underneath there is a common theme.
The Spirit Vine retreats in Brazil has spiritual workshops that help people to find the source or the trigger that produces a stressful situation, and participants learn tools and techniques on how to transform and overcome these patterns and resolve the problem at the root level. Most people that attend the workshops report major lifestyle changes in which they eliminate the stress-inducing triggers and find a much more peaceful life.