Stress May Help Women Live Healthier

Friday, May 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Women react to stress differently than men, turning to their children and seeking out friends instead of using the ``fight-or-flight'' reflex, according to a study out today.

The University of California, Los Angeles study suggests that the ``tend-and-befriend'' pattern keeps stressed women calmer. Researchers say the response also may help explain why women are less vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse and stress-related disorders such as hypertension than men.

Researchers cited several hundred previous studies on rodents, primates and humans to suggest a broad model of how women deal with stress, although they admitted the hypothesis needs more testing.

``Men and women do have some reliably different responses to stress'' said lead researcher Shelley E. Taylor, a UCLA psychology professor. ``I think we've really been missing the boat on one of the most important responses.''

Studies have shown that females facing a predator, disaster or a particularly bad day at the office tend to respond by caring for their offspring and seeking contact and support from others, especially other females, the UCLA researchers said.

Such tendencies may explain why, for example, women are more likely to telephone friends in a crisis, or why ``women ask for directions and men don't,'' Taylor said.

The ``tend-and-befriend'' pattern may be linked to the hormone oxytocin, which is released during stress and has been shown to make rats and humans calmer, less afraid and more social, researchers said.

Men secrete oxytocin, but male hormones seem to reduce its effect, while the female hormone estrogen amplifies it, Taylor said.

The concept is intriguing, said Dr. Jean Chen Shih, a professor of molecular pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Southern California.

Chen said her own studies have found that male mice will fight an intruder placed in their cage but females will not.

``I'm just thinking when I'm stressed, what do I do?'' she added. ``I think that I talk to my friends. When I have a problem, I talk. In general, men don't.''

Many human and animal studies have shown that females are more social and less physically aggressive than males. However, the ``tend-and-befriend'' pattern hasn't shown up sharply in scientific literature because until government grant policies changed in 1995, women were underrepresented in stress studies, Taylor said.

The study is to be published late this year or early next year in the Psychological Review of the American Psychological Association.


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