Previous studies looking at the ways that men and women respond to stress have found that while men tend to react with the “fight or flight” response, women generally turn to the less aggressive “tend and befriend” response. In other words, while men might respond to a stressful situation by lashing out or avoiding the issue, women are more likely to seek out social support.
A State University of New York at Buffalo study, published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, provides further insight into the sexes’ differing stress responses. Buffalo researchers found that the hormone estrogen has a protective effect on the brain that causes female rats to respond better to repeated stress exposure than male rats.
“We have examined the molecular mechanism underlying gender-specific effects of stress,” the study’s senior author Zhen Yan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University at Buffalo, said in a press release. “Previous studies have found that females are more resilient to chronic stress and now our research has found the reason why.”
The researchers exposed female rats to one week of physical restraint stress, and found that the rat’s ability to remember and recognize objects that they had been shown previously was completely unimpaired. But male rats exposed to the same level of stress did show impairment in their short-term memory.
This memory impairment, the study’s authors noted, represents a disturbance in signaling capacities of the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region that governs abstract thinking, behavior regulation, emotion, working memory, and other high-level cognitive functions.
The Buffalo research team’s work expands upon a study they conducted last year, which found that exposing male rats to repeated stress significantly impaired temporal order recognition memory, a cognitive process controlled by the prefrontal cortex.
The new study’s real breakthrough came when researchers manipulated the amount of estrogen produced in the brain, which made male rats respond to stress like female rats, and female rats respond to stress like male rats. When estrogen signaling in female brains was blocked, stress had significant negative effects on the brain, Yan explained in the press release, and when estrogen signaling was activated in male brain, the negative effects of stress were blocked.
These findings could not only lead to new ways of treating stress-related disorders in men, but also shed light on sex differences in mental health problems more broadly, Yan told the Los Angeles Times.
“If we could find compounds similar to estrogen that could be administered without causing hormonal side effects,” Yan said in the press release, “they could prove to be a very effective treatment for stress-related problems in males.”
And though women may cope better with stress in some ways, as the study found, previous research has determined that women may internalize stress to a greater degree, and are therefore more likely to experience anxiety or depression as a result of stress than men. Women also report higher stress levels overall than their male counterparts.
For both men and women, then, stress reduction isn’t optional — a rapidly growing body of research has shown stress management to be a vital aspect of a lifestyle that supports good mental and physical health.
“It’s not a matter of whether you have time,” Jan Bruce wrote in a Huffington Post blog titled, “Stress Is a Women’s Issue.” “You can’t afford to do the things that keep you calm, revitalized, and engaged.”