Women’s Responses to Stressful Situations
Recent studies make clear that not only do women have different types of stress, but more importantly, in addition to known responses, women have unique responses to stress in addition to the two common types of stress coping approaches which have been studied extensively in men and women. Emotion focused and Problem focused approaches are experienced by men and women. Tend and Befriend is the coping response unique to women.
Emotion focused coping represents attempts to process the feelings and reactions associated with a stressful event/situation. Common emotion focused coping strategies include: distraction, rumination, self-blame, and wishful thinking. Seeking a forum for expression of our emotions, like talking with a girlfriend, is a positive emotion coping strategy unless the level of support is less than what we need or not at the level of intimacy that is needed. This only serves to exacerbate the negative effect of a lack of control further increasing risks of harmful effects. Women are ‘emotionally porous’. When we attempt to ‘compartmentalize ‘or shut down’ we may actually be at risk for developing health problems. We have a predisposition for ‘feelings’. Successful women understand how emotion and intuition work for them.
Problem focused coping includes taking charge of changing the environment or developing an action plan meant to lead to a solution. Problem -focused coping (planning actions, personal growth, self-adaptation, engaging in positive thinking) has been found to decrease emotional distress and reduce the risk of depression. Whereas emotion-focused coping often increases emotional distress and is more likely to lead to depression.
A gender-specific coping pattern is the strong tendency for women to affiliate with others when coping with stress has been researched by Shelly Taylor. Just watch an episode of Sex in the City to see that in general women maintain more same-sex close relationships. We mobilize more social support during stressful events than men. This pattern is thought to be due to the oxytocin hormone found only in women. “Tend-and-befriend” is the name of this response pattern. It’s part of our social understanding that women like to talk, and share.
Vigilant Anticipatory Coping is a coping style described by Drs. Thomas Laviest and Dr. David Williams. It describes a pattern of coping often adopted unconsciously by individuals who lack critical mass in certain situations. This measure has been associated with depression. This construct is measured by determining the extent to which individuals prepare in advance for the kind of problems they are likely to experience; try to prepare for possible insults before leaving home, feel that they always have to be careful about their appearance to get good service or avoid being harassed, carefully watch what they say and how they say it, carefully observe what happens around them, and try to avoid discrimination in social and work situation.
Finally, a word about “women’s intuition” and the management of stress. Learning your personal language of intuition is a large part of successfully managing the stress according to Mona Lisa Schulz, author of “The New Feminine Brain”. She defines intuition as the product of your brain and body. The traditional male brain is 10% larger than the traditional female brain but the male brain fewer connections between the cells. The corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres, is bigger in women. These basic structural differences may explain some of the differences between men and women and how we see the world, what they pay attention to, how events are remembered, and how they get in touch with their intuition. The male brain with more nerve cells and fewer connections, is like a house with a lot of incoming phone lines but no extensions; you can only talk to one person at a time. The traditional female brain, on the other hand, is like a house with only one incoming line but multiple extensions several people can talk on the line at the same time, so there are more connections among all parties. Women’s brains are more integrated and integrative. Typically, the left side of the brain is controlled by the right side of the brain. The right side being more emotionally expressive especially for right handed people. Before ovulation, the left side; rational analytical and focused predominates. After ovulation the right side; intuitive and creative is more in charge. Successful management of stress requires learning how to make intuition work.