Last December, a new Gallup poll showed that 79 percent of Americans report being frequently or sometimes stressed every day. That’s a reasonably significant amount of baggage to handle on a regular basis, and everyone handles—or doesn’t handle—stress differently.
Studying the causes and behaviors surrounding stress is essential to understanding and treating the many associated health issues. Some of the most telling research focuses on how stress differs among the sexes—both psychologically and biologically.
Scientists have pinpointed three hormones as causing most immediate stress responses: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin.
Many used to believe that women produced more cortisol than men when faced with stressors (an idea that helped promote stereotypes of overly emotional women). In fact, there is little difference between cortisol production in men and women.
Instead, researchers discovered that in women, oxytocin is released from the brain, countering the cortisol and epinephrine. This is what causes women to “tend and befriend”—as opposed to the thought-to-be-universal “fight or flight” evolutionary response.
As detailed in a 2000 Psychological Review study by UCLA Professor Shelley Taylor, Ph.D.:
“Tending involves nurture[ing] activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.”
Due to less oxytocin, men usually stick with “fight or flight”—thus fulfilling clichés of bottling up feelings or reacting with anger.
Men’s tendency to repress emotions could be one of the reasons that women more frequently report high-stress levels. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2010 report showed that while men and women usually report similar stress levels, women are still more likely to say that their stress levels are on the rise. Women are also more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress.
Some of the most common physical symptoms of stress women report are headaches, upset stomachs or indigestion.
The APA study also showed that married women overall report higher levels of stress and more frequent incidents of physical and emotional distress when compared to their unwed peers.
Naturally, coping strategies are just as disparate between men and women—but most people do prefer sedentary stress-relieving activities, regardless of gender.
For women, some of the most popular coping methods are reading, spending time with friends and family or going to community gatherings such as religious services. Activities that promote human connection are a natural fit in the “tend and befriend” response.
To apply the “fight or flight” response to men’s stress management isn’t all that inaccurate, either. Men report playing sports—which can include actual fighting—or listening to music. The flight response? That’s the men who reported doing nothing to cope with stress.
While all of these studies are indeed detailed, it is important to remember that stress, while a necessary evolutionary tool, is now much more complicated than simple hormonal reactions—and it is not the same for every person of the same gender.
External stressors have changed. We do need stress to help us react to dangerous situations, but evolutionary, we aren’t designed to handle say, the stress of scrolling through Instagram and feeling left out or self-conscious. There is no way to physically run from insecurity.
These studies also do not delve into the complexities of stress on trans and gender non-conforming persons (TGNC). Brian Rood, Ph.D., MPH, an Associate Professor at Augsburg University, published an intensive study on stress experiences in this community.
The study is unlike previous ones because it does not compare stress along a gender binary of trans men and trans women. This more inclusive approach makes one fact very clear: trans and gender nonconforming persons experience stress for very different reasons than cisgender people—and there are not as many available coping mechanisms.
Other studies show cis men generally stress most about job performance, and women stress a great deal over interpersonal relationships. In comparison, TGNC people report high levels of stress merely leaving their homes. Any outside human interaction is a chance for rejection, or worse.
One study participant lamented:
“There is the knowledge that you’re going to walk into places and you will get treated differently; you will get looked at differently. It’s not like it might not happen. It’s not like it might happen. It’s going to happen at least at some point every day.”
The way TGNC are treated differently varies wildly. On the least stressful end of the spectrum is a dirty look or a whispered insult from passersby, but the greatest fear is that of violence, even death. These anxieties are well founded. In 2018 alone, at least 16 Trans Americans have been murdered.
And it gets worse. TGNC people tend to rely on avoidance as opposed to coping mechanisms after encountering stressors. One of the most commonly-reported stressors is public restrooms. People will do their best to avoid using public facilities where people may confront them about the gender identity.
When it is unavoidable, many will use developed techniques to slip out unnoticed or hide until others leave, out of fear of judgment or the worst-case scenario, violence. Apart from that, the most common coping strategy is substance abuse.
While all of these studies serve to highlight differences, their results underscore how important it is to prioritize research on stress. Understanding more than hormonal factors will help doctors understand how stress affects individuals both on a daily basis and regarding overall health. The effect of external and internalized stressors in the TGNC population is one step towards understanding how stress is partially a matter of biology, but not entirely.
The revelations of Rood’s study prove that understanding stress through the gender binary isn’t necessarily the best way to attack The Great American Stress problem.
For now, check out how 19 different women cope with stress.