Imagine carrying your weekly grocery shopping to your car in an empty parking lot one evening, and out of the shadows a person appears, waving a knife and demands your car keys. What would you do?
The answer appears to depend on whether you are a man or a woman.
If you’re a man your instinctive reaction would probably be to fight off the threat or run away. That’s the “fight or flight” response to stress we have all heard about.
If you are a woman however, your typical immediate reaction may be different. She may instinctively be tempted to talk herself out of the situation: “Let’s discuss this and see if there’s a way I can help without you making things worse.”
Her different stress response is referred to as “tend and befriend”, which is using social behaviour to befriend the enemy (presuming it is an enemy that is causing stress) and to seek social support from offspring and friends.
From an evolutionary point of view, “tend and befriend” involves activities to protect and nurture herself and her offspring. This is biologically created by women who respond to stress by secreting endorphins which encourage social interactions and oxytocin which is a hormone linked to protecting children and family members.
Loss of self esteem causes different stress for men and woman
Loss of self-esteem causes stress for both men and woman, but gender differences again play an interesting differentiating role.
Male self-esteem is often built around adequacy of performance, and if so, performance failure will be a potent stressor for men.
Female self-esteem on the other hand, is often built around adequacy of relationships. If this is the case, relationship sacrifice and loss will be a potent stressor for women.
Men and woman manage stress differently
Related to these differences, men and women way also manage their stress differently. Women often use their close relationships to talk through their emotional experience, to process what has happened and to move forward. They experience relief by telling their stories to other nurturing women.
Men on the other hand often use an escape activity to create a diversion and to get away from the situation. Men typically don’t talk through their emotions, but experience relief through physical activities. Even better for men is if it is in a challenging context and in the companionship of other men. Playing golf springs to mind as an example.
So what does all this mean for you handling your stress, if you recognise yourself in these gender generalisations?
Implications for women:
1. Nurture your relationships at work. Help your colleagues. They understand you at work and can reciprocate your support of them when you need it.
2. Nurture your loving relationships and friendships at home. These relationships give you the inner resources and emotional strength you need to cope at work, so don’t be tempted to skimp on them.
3. When you feel overwhelmed, set boundaries. Limit your access to e-mails after hours and taking work home on a regular basis. It’s better to turn down people’s requests, rather than to take on so much that you fail to meet both their needs and your needs too.
Implications for men:
1. Choose when to compete and fight, and when to walk away. Don’t let your biology coerce you into doing what is not in your long-term interest. Think before reacting.
2. Make sure you only compete over goals that are worthwhile. Ensure that what you have to sacrifice to reach your performance goals is worthwhile in the long term.
3. When you feel overwhelmed, cut back on your commitments by dumping things that are not important in the long run. When you fail to meet your own and others expectations, don’t beat yourself up. Rather accept that failure is a necessary part of your learning and development.
Of course these gender differences are generalisations, but I have found it sometimes helps to highlight them. I would love to hear what works for you!
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References for blog
Taylor, S. E. (2002). The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live. New York: Henry Holt.
Taylor, S. E., et al. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107: 411-429.
Lee, J., Harley, V. (2012). The male fight-flight response: A result of SRY regulation of catecholamines? BioEssays, Wiley-Blackwell, March 2012, DOI: 10.1002/bies.201100159
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