When it comes to women’s stress and mental health, the focus tends to be on the fact that women have higher rates of anxiety and depression than men do. The discussion zeroes in on the findings that women don’t have the same protective factors that men do, such as engaging in higher levels of physical activity, ruminating less about past events, feeling more in control of their lives, and being more positive about themselves, which puts them more at risk for developing these conditions. The implicit message is that the emotionality of women is a disadvantage and that men are better equipped to cope with stress than women are.
However, as a mental health professional, I can tell you these assumptions are far from true. In fact, women, in our own right, have much to praise about our response to health conditions—namely, how we handle stress as it relates to heart disease.
Stress affects us all. And one of the major areas where stress takes a toll is on the heart. Unsurprisingly, research cited by the University of Maryland found that men and women cope with stress differently, but, interestingly, some of the ways that women cope with stress may in fact be positive agents when it comes to preventing heart disease.
Research that examined the gender gap in heart disease reveals that, when under stress, women are more likely to take a proactive approach, whereas men are more likely to take an avoidant approach. Men more frequently use distraction, alcohol consumption, and denial to cope with their stress symptoms, whereas women are more likely to engage in what researchers called “tend and befriend” behavior, which may protect against heart disease.
How does a more social-centric approach protect your heart? When under stress, women not only produce stress hormones, but they also produce the hormone oxytocin, which “enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness, and lowers stress responses.” The oxytocin is thought to counteract the effects of the fight or flight response triggered by stress hormones. Men, on the other hand, produce lower amounts of oxytocin, and its effects are lessened by the male stress hormones. Some researchers even suggest this difference in response to stress between genders may contribute to women living an average of seven years longer than men.
Acknowledging these findings is an important step in challenging the implicit belief that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to mental health issues. Bringing attention to this research helps curb inaccurate and unhelpful misconceptions about women’s abilities to manage their health and protect against disease. It can also guide preventive care when it comes to protecting against heart disease so that interventions should focus on improving social support, lifestyle behaviors, and coping skills.
At the end of the day, we women have come quite a long way from the hysterical labels we were often subjected to simply for experiencing normal emotions and mental health conditions. Thanks to science and a commitment to change the public discord, women continue to see the benefits of information. Rather than becoming a battle of the sexes, gender differences in health can help promote better care for both genders. And that’s something we can all support.
Photo Credit: Ryan Flynn