How Do Men and Women React to Stress?

Ask the experts

Are women more sensitive to stress than men? Does stress affect men and women differently?

Doctor's response

Both men and women are sensitive to psychological stress and its effects. Since people vary widely in their perception of stress, it is not possible to generalize and state that men or women are more sensitive to stress.

There may be differences, however, in the way men and women are conditioned to respond to stress. For years, the human stress response has been termed the "flight or fight" reaction, meaning that the surge of hormones released in an acutely stressful situation prepares the body to either deal with (fight) or flee (flight) the stressful situation. Newer research argues that the "flight or fight" theory is based upon research conducted largely in men, and that women may have evolved a different stress response.

This "new" stress response is referred to as the "tend and befriend" response. Scientists who favor this theory believe that women may have evolved alternative hormonal responses that even downplay the "fight or flight" response. Instead, they argue, women have developed stress responses that provide for the nurturance of offspring, the exhibition of behaviors that protect them from harm (tending), and befriending - or creating and joining social groups for protection.

This new theory has raised questions for stress research, and studies are ongoing to characterize potential differences in male and female stress responses.

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


Fauci, Anthony S., et al.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine 17th ed.
United States: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008.