You May Have Always Suspected It, But A Study Suggests That Women Do Cope With Stress Differently Than Men
August 30, 2000
A research team that includes a Penn State Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Dr. Laura Cousino Klein, has identified a broad biological and behavioral pattern that explains a key method used by women to cope with stress.
"It seems that rather than responding in a fight-or-flight fashion when threatened, fearful or stressed, women may more often tend-and-befriend. Women are more likely to protect and nurture their young, and turn to family and friends for solace when they are stressed," explains Dr. Klein of Penn State's College of Health and Human Development.
That's a key finding from a UCLA study, which Klein participated in as a post-doctoral scholar. The study, led by UCLA principal investigator Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Review, a journal of the American Psychological Association. Its findings are based on an analysis of hundreds of biological and behavioral studies of response to stress by thousands of humans and animal subjects.
"This 'tend-and-befriend' pattern is a sharp contrast to the 'fight-or-flight' behavior pattern that has long been considered the principal method for coping with stress by both men and women," notes Klein. "For women, that didn't quite make any sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It's a rare female of any species that would leave her baby to fend for itself while she physically takes on an aggressor. Females are more likely to protect their children, and bond with other females who can help provide protection in the process."
For decades, psychological research maintained that both men and women rely on fight or flight to cope with stress, meaning that when confronted with stress, individuals either react with aggressive behavior, such as verbal conflict and more drastic actions, or withdraw from the stressful situation. The researchers found that men often react to stress with a traditional fight-or flight response. However, the researchers found that women are more likely to manage their stress with a tend-and-befriend response by nurturing their children or seeking social contact, especially with other women.
"The hormone oxytocin might be the key. It is well known that oxytocin is released during childbirth and lactation. But, in terms of biobehavioral stress research, it has been overlooked. Oxytocin, in fact, is a mood regulator. Studies show that oxytocin decreases anxiety and depression, and promotes an affiliation or friend-seeking response in females," says Klein. "After a hard day's work, for example, women are more likely to affiliate, while men may need time to decompress. Both men and women produce oxytocin from the posterior pituitary gland, but women churn out more."
If a woman is stressed, she may get a quick burst of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Then comes oxytocin. The female hormone, estrogen, enhances oxytocin's role, and the tend-or-befriend response in women, while the male hormone testosterone appears to enhance fight-or-flight in men.
The "tend-and-befriend" methods range from talking on the phone with relatives or friends, to making simple social contacts such as asking for directions when lost. This difference in seeking social support during stressful periods is the principal way men and women differ in their response to stress.
"This doesn't mean that women never become angry or aggressive, or that men never tend or befriend," says Klein, "but the tend-and befriend response to stress is more common among women."
This is the first new model to describe people's stress response patterns in more than 60 years and fills a gap in the stress response literature. Almost all the stress response studies in the past have been conducted on males and so, therefore, upheld fight-or-flight as the main response to stress.
Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension, aggressive behavior, or alcohol abuse explains Klein. The tend-and-befriend response may, in some ways, protect women against stress and may provide insights into why women live an average of seven years longer than men.
"This research may encourage other researchers to further investigate the differences between men and women, as they study diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer, or depression," says Klein. "We (researchers) need to open our vision. We're merely on the tip of the iceberg."
Klein will continue studying sex differences in stress responses and the role of oxytocin in connection with immune function at University Park with Dr. Elizabeth Corwin, assistant professor of Nursing in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. The researchers will use the General Clinical Research Center in the Elmore Clinical Research Wing at Noll Laboratory to carry out their research. Klein and Corwin recently received a $6,000 grant to fund the research from the Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. The primary purpose of the Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program is to stimulate new research within the college.
In addition to Taylor and Klein, the research team for the UCLA-led study, Behavioral Response to Stress in Females: Tend-and Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight, included Brian P. Lewis, assistant professor at Syracuse; Regan A.R. Gurung, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay; and UCLA graduate students Tara L. Gruenewald and John A. Updegraff.
For additional information, contact Dr. Klein at or 814-865-8813. If you need any assistance, contact Steven Infanti of Penn State's College of Health and Human Development's External Relations Office at 814-863-4325 or