Published on: November 26, 2016
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Chronic stress is linked to a wide-range of health problems including heart disease, depression, anxiety, and even dementia. Stress induces hormonal changes that when experienced for a prolonged period, result in increased blood pressure, higher blood sugar levels and a compromised immune system, creating the conditions for developing serious ailments.
Certain stress-related illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and dementia, are more common in women. In an attempt to uncover why that is the case, researchers are investigating the differences between women and men when it comes to stress. Stress is inherently challenging to study because it is perceived differently by each individual and there are numerous environmental, cultural and biological variables involved. And, teasing out differences between the sexes when it comes to stress adds another layer of complexity. Research to date shows that “her stress” and “his stress” differ in several ways. Women and men differ in how much stress they report, how they perceive that stress, and how they cope with it. Here’s a summary of what has been discovered so far about the stress differences between the sexes.
Women report experiencing higher stress levels than men. The 2012 Stress in America survey by the American Psychological
Association (APA) found that on average, women reported their stress level to be 5.3 on a 10-point scale compared to the 4.6 men reported on average, with 1 meaning “little or no stress” and 10 representing “a great deal of stress.” (A score of 3.6 was considered by both sexes as a healthy level of stress.)
More women reported experiencing extreme stress; 23 percent of women reported a stress level of between 8 and 10 while only 16 percent of men did.
The same survey revealed that women are more likely than men to report symptoms due to stress such as fatigue (45 percent vs. 29 percent); feeling nervous or anxious (42 percent vs. 27 percent); feeling depressed or sad (39 percent vs. 28 percent); and having headaches (34 percent vs. 20 percent).
Other research supports the APA findings. For example, a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in November 2004 reported that “women scored significantly higher than the men in chronic stress and minor daily stressors” as well as on physical symptoms. Interestingly, the study also revealed that while there was no difference between the sexes in the number of stressful life events experienced in the previous two years, the women “rated their life events as more negative and less controllable than the men” demonstrating that women appear to perceive stress differently.
It is important to note that it is not clear whether the higher levels of stress and symptoms reported by women are actual differences. Some researchers suggest it’s possible that these differences may reflect a tendency by women to over-report stress or for men to under-report stress.
Research also suggests that women and men differ in how they respond to stress. In the 1930s, physiologist Walter Cannon argued that all humans and animals experience a universal physiological response to stress which he called “fight or flight.” When faced with a stressful situation, the body’s sympathetic nervous system responds automatically—increasing heart rate and blood pressure, quickening the breath—preparing one to “fight” the threat/stressor or flee from it (i.e. “run”).
An article in Psychological Review in 2000 suggested that human females’ response to stress is “not well characterized by fight-or-flight” but rather is more accurately described as a pattern they called “tend-and-befriend.” The researchers suggested that because of women’s traditional role as primary caregiver of any children, a uniquely female stress response evolved over time, one that maximized survival of self and offspring. With children to take care of, women were not able to fight or flee when faced by a threat, so they evolved to deal with stressors in a different way, tending to distressed children during periods of difficulty and befriending others to build a social support network that might provide protection during future exposure to threats/stressors.
Stress hormones are thought to be one of the main underlying causes of women’s and men’s differing reactions to stress, and perhaps of women’s higher incidence of stress-related illness. Three hormones in particular play a crucial role in whether someone is inclined to tend-and-befriend or fight-or-flight: cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin. For both women and men, stress increases cortisol and epinephrine levels, which raises blood pressure and circulating blood sugar (while cortisol alone compromises immune system function).
Women’s and men’s brains both release oxytocin in response to stress, but women’s brains release more.
And, oxytocin is a substance known to alleviate pain and help one feel good about social interactions; it counteracts the effects of cortisol and epinephrine, and promotes nurturing and relaxing emotions, feelings that are consistent with a tend-and-befriend response to stress. Men, with their lower amounts of oxytocin, are more likely to exhibit the fight-or-flight response.
A study published in the October 6, 2010 issue of NeuroReport examined whether brain differences might be influencing women’s tendency to seek out social support and men’s tendency to withdraw in response to stress. Half of the women and half of the men participating were exposed to a stressor—placing their hands in nearly freezing water for up to three minutes, while the other half placed their hands in warm water.
Saliva tests measuring cortisol levels indicated that the men and women who had experienced the icy water were equally stressed by that experience, but brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that the stress affected their brains in different ways. The stressed-out men and women were shown either neutral or angry faces while undergoing an fMRI scan; differences were noted in the fusiform facial area of the brain which helps with facial recognition. This area in the brains of the stressed-out men showed a decrease in activity, appearing to disengage, while this area in the stressed-out women’s brains was on alert and more attuned to facial expression.
Sex hormones also play a role in sex differences in stress response. For example, estrogen is known to buffer the effects of stress, reducing the amount of cortisol released. Estrogen is produced by the ovaries in women until they reach menopause, after which estrogen levels drop dramatically. Men also have estrogen in their bodies; part of the testosterone produced by the testicles gets converted to estrogen. So, men continue to have estrogen—and enjoy its protective properties for their brains—throughout their lives. This might help explain why more women than men experience brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s after 50 years of age, because that is typically when women enter menopause and have low estrogen levels.
Much more research is needed to fully understand the sex differences when it comes to stress.
Strategies to Decrease Stress
Given the serious health consequences of chronic stress, both women and men need to seek out ways to deal with it. There are many ways both sexes can cope with stress naturally including learning to say no to some things, and engaging in meditation, yoga and other forms of physical activity, and creative pursuits. There are two habits that should also be addressed to reduce stress as well as the risk of depression and dementia: worrying and ruminating.
Stop worrying. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden discovered that middle-aged women who tended to
worry excessively had a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The study, described in a 2014 Neurology article, followed 800 women for almost 40 years. A personality test was used to identify the women whose personalities tended toward the neurotic (i.e. were prone to worrying, anxiety, moodiness) and they were found to be twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the women who were least prone to neuroticism.
Stop ruminating. Rumination is a term used to describe the habit of mentally churning over and over thoughts about things that disturb or stress you out, rehashing past negative experiences or imagining future negative consequences. Research by Yale University professor Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that ruminating is more common among women than men, and that people who have a tendency to ruminate are more likely to be depressed and at greater risk of developing other mental health disorders.
The lesson to be learned then is simple, for the health of your brain, practice staying focused on the present moment, letting go of the past, and not worrying about the future. It may not be easy to change these habits, but the payoff will be worth the effort.
Stress & Dementia
Many studies point to a link between stress and dementia. Below are two recent examples:
A scientific study, led by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, and published in 2016, reviewed existing research and found that chronic anxiety and stress are associated with degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which may account for an increased risk of developing dementia.
A study by University of Florida Health researchers, described in a May 2015 EMBO Journal article, contributes to the evidence of a potential relationship between stress and Alzheimer’s disease. It found that the release of the hormone corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) boosts production of amyloid beta, the protein pieces that clump together into the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Stress causes the release of CRF in the brain.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER
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