When stressed, women tend to nurture and men to withdraw. This gender bias towards stress management goes in favor of women whose preferred stress coping strategy is “tend and befriend” as opposed to “fight or flight” which appears rather primitive in contemporary society.
“Fight or Flight” Stress Mechanism
In 1932 Walter Cannon coined the phrase “fight or flight” to suggest that stress triggers two primordial reactions—hitting back or running away. Since then this concept has dominated scientific thinking to the extent that people take it to be the only mechanism through which people manage stress in their lives. This concept found further support from biochemical investigations which revealed release of chemicals such as epinephrine and norepinephrine activated by the sympathetic nervous system whenever a challenging situation arises. This is outwardly manifested in the form of increase in blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels.
This “fight or flight” is more of a reminder of situations in the past when people were subjected to life threatening situations. In modern society, those types of threats are rare. Now people are least likely to encounter a tiger ready to pounce upon them or to have a cobra chasing them. Nature of threats is considerably different in the modern society; people now panic when they find themselves face to face with situations such as a traffic jam, crash of computer hard disc, a nasty boss, a probable job loss, ditched by girl/boy friend, etc. None of these can be termed life threatening in the right frame of mind but the emotional panic is quite profound.
Even in such entirely different “threatening situations” the hormonal response is triggered; hence, the idea of “fight or flight” has prevailed and reigned for over six decades. However, when researchers reviewed the stress research data, it was noticed that the subjects (both human and animal) were predominantly male, only 17% subjects were female who often failed to exhibit the fight-or-flight reaction. Any deviant female response was almost always considered suspicious due to their monthly fluctuations in hormone levels. As a result, data included in the final conclusions remained representative of male behavior only and since the concept of “fight or flight” appeared logical people rarely tried to look beyond for a more accurate picture. However, the landscape of stress research changed in 1995 when the government grant policies changed.
Now researchers believe that “fight or flight” is only part of a bigger picture, stress can also elicit another behavioral pattern – “tend and befriend” – especially in females.