Women, men and why women are more empathic when stressed.




What are you like when stressed? Moody and sullen? Outgoing and distracted? Withdrawn and isolating? Plate-throwing and shouldn’t be let near sharp objects?

It might be absurdly self-evident to suggest that you respond to stress differently from other people.

It could also help your office dynamics and team cohesion if you had something of a yardstick to benchmark people by, and an understanding of how and why we might respond the way we do.

There are still some things that make us all the same

No matter who you are, there is a standard pattern of physiological response to stress. Stress activates what’s called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is a branch of the autonomic nervous system which is itself a branch of the peripheral nervous system. It’s called ‘peripheral’ to differentiate it from the ‘central’ nervous system.

Consider the SNS an accelerator, revving our bodily systems. Heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, digestion and excretion stops, and blood flows to the large muscle groups, preparing us for action.

The brain directs the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands (on the kidneys) for short-term stress, and cortisol for long-term stress.

When the stress appears to have reduced, the parasympathetic nervous system (consider this a brake) restores the pre-stress levels. Pupils constrict, heart rate and blood pressure drop, digestion and excretion resume, and blood flows back to the internal organs.

The same pattern occurs in men and women.

But when and how that pattern might be activated, can be different. And if we step back from the purely physiological, we’ll see striking differences, particularly in how we behave.

The fun chemical

Dopamine is now famous for its role in reward. We all usually have plenty of it. In a typical brain, dopamine is released by a nerve cell, it acts on those nerve cells around it, and is then absorbed by the original cell. Over and over again, for billions of cells, and trillions of connections.

Too much dopamine though, and we get overwhelmed, can’t think straight, can’t remember, can’t manage to think clearly.

Some of us clear dopamine away at lightning speed, but risk poor performance by being understressed. These people need stress to perform well. Others clear it away at slow speed. They’re better under lower stress.

In nearly all of the brain, a transporter protein does this clearing job quickly and efficiently.

Except, that is, in your high-powered prefrontal cortex. This is your brain’s executive suite. But here, there are very few dopamine transporter proteins, and dopamine uptake is terrible. We rely on a back up, called COMT (catechol–O–methyltransferase).

And here’s what’s fascinating about COMT. It’s not as good as the regular transporter protein. And it’s affected, substantially, by a hormone.


Estrogen suppresses the function of COMT so it performs a bad job even worse than usual.

For women, when estrogen levels are high (twice a month, at ovulation and just before menstruation) dopamine levels are also very high, as it’s just not being removed. At these times, awash in estrogen and dopamine, women are more susceptible to stress, and more likely to feel pressure.

When you create this situation in the lab, stress resulted in women making fewer, slower, less risky, less successful decisions. Men made faster, more risky, but more calculated and more profitable decisions.

When faced with tasks, stress helped the men, and hindered the women.

Men might not have noticed…

In fact, work from Vienna, city of cafes, culture, and the original consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud, suggests that men and women react in opposite ways when taxed.

Fights or friends?

Psychologist Claus Lamm and his University of Vienna team demonstrated that the typical male pattern stress response was egocentric. That is, he looked inwards, looking to protect himself, conserving energy and resources for the anticipated fight or flight. He became less aware of the needs of others and less able to take their perspective.

Stress narrowed his perceptions, and his ability to understand others, but he became very task focused.

Women, on the other hand, demonstrated an approach that was typically outward looking, looking for social support and heightening their ability to take another’s perspective, known as a tend and befriend approach. They were more likely to look to offer empathy to others, and even more so than they might have been before the stress.

Naturally, I’m overstating a little to draw the contrast, but you get the point.

Claus and team note some possibilities for why this difference might be so marked, including the release of oxytocin, a social chemical found in higher quantities in women’s brains that men’s.

Maybe, but there’s more

Women, it seems, are wired for this tend and befriend approach. In another series of studies published in 2012 by Nichole Lightfoot and collaborators, subjects had their brains scanned during a stressful event. There was a key difference between their male and female subject groups.

At the back of the brain, in the part of the brain known as the occipital lobe, the cortex of which is chiefly responsible for processing visual inputs, is a small area for identifying familiar objects, including faces. It’s called the fusiform gyrus, and sometimes the special little bit of the gyrus is called the fusiform face area. Especially, it helps us recognize and scan faces to read the various emotional shades, nuances and cues that the face displays.

In women under stress, activity here increases in a way not seen in the brains of men under stress.

In actual fact, activity in this area decreases in men; it’s suppressed. They tune out the faces of other people, and will most likely fail to recognize many social cues. Women, already better than men at reading social cues anyway, now excel at it.

Men, already the poorer at it, are now worse.

And then…

Moreover, men tend to process stressful emotional conversations with their right hemisphere, which is great for remembering only the gist. This may explain why he’s over it in 3 seconds and moving on, and doesn’t really remember too much about why she was mad….

Women tend to process stressful emotional conversations with the whole brain, and more especially the left hemisphere, which is great for detail. So she will remember the words, the tone, and everything, across many more data points than he can imagine, and will most certainly not be over it in 3 seconds, given the amount of data she has to work through.

And given that when she’s stressed she’s likely to be more emotional, while he’s likely to become more calculated, which easily becomes argumentative…

So here’s the take home bit

Now imagine those men and women in the same team. Subject the team to pressure, and note how differently they’ll look to cope with the stress, and how easily miscommunication and misunderstanding can arise. Maybe you’ve been there yourself?

Imagine a team with a minority of women. She might find the male majority unsupportive and disinterested. She looks to tend and befriend but finds nobody in the team available. They find her needy and annoying and wish she’d just get on with it.

By contrast, imagine a team with a minority of men. He might find the female majority cloying and overbearing and wish they’d leave him alone. He’ll handle it thanks. They find him disengaged, not a team player, separatist, aloof and difficult to deal with.

What about a boardroom where she feels stressed and becomes emotional, given the data points she has, while he glibly mocks her for emotions in his unempathic way.

Or, as you can guess, you could imagine it at home. If a man and woman are getting into an argument, and stress is starting to rise… you can see where this is going.

A misunderstanding, or lack of appreciation of how and why we naturally respond to stress, given our gender-specific wiring, can lead straight to more stress, and more miscommunication, and so on, in an escalating cycle.

How might we coach teams?

How might we teach relationships?

When might we start?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Dopamine, Oxytocin, COMT, Catechol-O-methyltransferase

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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