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Response to Stress Is Gender Specific

man and womanA new study finds the area of the brain that activates in response to stress varies among men and women. The inherent neurobiological difference may help explain why the incidence of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression vary among genders.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine publish their findings in the current issue of SCAN (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience).

“We found that different parts of the brain activate with different spatial and temporal profiles for men and women when they are faced with performance-related stress,” says J.J. Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor or Radiology and Neurology, and lead author of the study.

These findings suggest that stress responses may be fundamentally different in each gender, sometimes characterized as “fight-or-flight” in men and “tend-and-befriend” in women. Evolutionarily, males may have had to confront a stressor either by overcoming or fleeing it, while women may have instead responded by nurturing offspring and affiliating with social groups that maximize the survival of the species in times of adversity.

The “fight-or-flight” response is associated with the main stress hormone system that produces cortisol in the human body – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

Thirty-two healthy subjects – 16 females and 16 males – received fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans before, during and after they underwent a challenging arithmetic task (serial subtraction of 13 from a 4 digit number), under pressure.

To increase the level of stress, the researchers frequently prompted participants for a faster performance and asked them to restart the task if they responded incorrectly. As a low stress control condition, participants were asked to count backward without pressure.

The researchers measured heart rate, cortisol levels (a stress hormone), subjects’ perceived stress levels throughout the experiments, and regional cerebral blood flow (CBF), which provides a marker of regional brain function. In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased CBF in the right prefrontal cortex and CBF reduction in the left orbitofrontal cortex.

In women, the limbic system – a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion – was activated when they were under stress. Both men and women’s brain activation lasted beyond the stress task, but the lasting response in the female brain was stronger.

The neural response among the men was associated with higher levels of cortisol, whereas women did not have as much association between brain activation to stress and cortisol changes.

“Women have twice the rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,” notes Dr. Wang.

“Knowing that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than in men, may help us begin to explain the gender differences in the incidence of mood disorders.”

Source: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Response to Stress Is Gender Specific

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Response to Stress Is Gender Specific. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2007/11/20/response-to-stress-is-gender-specific/1559.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.