The effects of stress permeate the workplace on a daily basis. Surprisingly, how workplace stress affects you depends a large part on whether you are a man or a woman. The differences in male-female stress response are illuminating and helpful.
The Physical and Emotional Effects of Stress at Work
Stress in the workplace can have massive physical and emotional effects on your health. If you feel trapped in your job, out of control or as if no one is listening, it takes a toll on your entire body. The stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine increase, causing different deleterious effects. Stress can cause increased blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels, panic attacks, decreased immune system response and anxiety. If you react in a self-destructive way to stress by increased intake of alcohol or comfort food, your body ends up suffering the damage. The effects of stress reach into the psychological and emotional areas as well, leaving you irritable, prone to bad decision-making, and uncommunicative.
Gender Differences in Response to Stress
While men and women may be exposed to similar stressors in the workplace, they respond to stress quite differently, even at the metabolic level. Both men and women produce cortisol and epinephrine in approximately the same amounts in response to stress, but women's brains also flood their systems with oxytocin, a hormone that promotes relaxation. Men produce far less of this crucial de-stressing hormone. The difference in the amount of oxytocin leads to further behavioral differences in male-female stress responses. The combination of the greater amount of oxytocin with female hormones leads women to "tend and befriend," reaching out to their social networks who in turn help them shed the effects of stress. Men, on the other hand, with their smaller secretions of oxytocin, slip back into a "fight or flight" mode. This tends to increase the level of competition in the workplace that ends up increasing the overall level of stress.
Neutralizing the Gender Differences to Stress
Although men cannot change their hormonal response to stress, incorporating an awareness of the differences in stress response between men and women is a great first step to lowering the stress level of the workplace. Acknowledging the need to manage stress is crucial for men, who feel this need far less than women. Men tend to flee the workplace to deal with the effects of stress, often seeking solace in sports activities. Women are more likely to talk about their stress, which is one of the best ways to let it dissipate. While seeking an escape from stress is beneficial, men may want to try some of the other options that women typically use more often, such as reading, spending time with friends, praying and seeking help from a mental health professional. In addition, getting enough sleep and being physically active are both healthy responses to stress, and ones that women use more often than men.
Understanding the differences in how stress affects men's bodies as compared to women's bodies opens up the door to seeking fresh approaches to dealing with the effects of stress. Once men acknowledge that women have better coping strategies, perhaps they can begin to copy some of these successful routines and choose a less stressful existence.
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