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Men Deal With Stress More Aggressively than Women, Thanks to a Single Gene

You’re face-to-face with a 6-foot hungry looking bear. He bares his teeth, sinewy droplets of frothy drool stream down from his gaping jaw. Your heart pounds, your adrenals pump copious amounts of hormones into your brain and muscles preparing you for...
March 8, 2012, 6:20pm

You're face-to-face with a 6-foot hungry looking bear. He bares his teeth, sinewy droplets of frothy drool stream down from his gaping jaw. Your heart pounds, your adrenals pump copious amounts of hormones into your brain and muscles preparing you for either a bloody tussle or a mad dash in the opposite direction. It’s fight or flight. Hello, increased blood flow, energy, and cognition. Goodbye, digestion, reproduction and immune function. This situation best illustrates human beings' physiological response to stress. Your brain processes a stressful situation and prepares your body to respond with a burst of energy that will save your life. But when was the last time you got into a fight or ran from a wild animal?

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Today a traffic jam, an argument, a work deadline, or even worried thoughts are more common stressors. These situations are not life-threatening but our bodies still respond as if they are. And we rarely get a chance to physically process the stressy hormones left over in our body after some moron honks as you're crossing the street (on a WALK sign, thank you very much). If you could go sprinting around the block screaming (without being arrested) you'd probably feel a lot better.

Instead, social norms oblige you to swallow your outrage and soldier on, leaving stress hormones unused in your body. If you suffer from chronic stress, which many of us do, you might do this a lot, creating a potentially toxic build-up of unused hormones in your body, and regularly shutting down essential bodily systems.

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky explains human beings' flawed stress habits:

As a result there's been a lot of research on how to combat chronic stress — like breathing exercises, yoga, anti-anxiety medication, and “Serenity now!” But a recent study suggests that our reaction to stress has a lot to do with gender. Australian scientists

writing for BioEssays

believe that aggression as a response to stress is determined in part by a single gene.

Until recently, it was thought that the SRY gene didn't have much of a role beyond determining the sex of a fetus by "directing the development of the testes," but scientists have found SRY protein in the brain and other vital organs of male subjects indicating that it influences behavior on a number of levels. The researchers posit the presence of SRY gene in males and its absence in females is the reason women "tend and befriend" (aww) while men "fight or flight" (roar). “Historically males and females have been under different selection pressures which are reflected by biochemical and behavioural differences between the sexes,” said author Dr. Joohyung Lee, from the Prince Henry’s Institute in Melbourne. “The aggressive fight-or-flight reaction is more dominant in men, while women predominantly adopt a less aggressive tend-and-befriend response.” Really? I can think of some singularly aggressive females, but it is common knowledge that men and women react to stress differently. The body releases the same hormones regardless of gender but the amounts of each may vary. For example cortisol and epinephrine are released in both women and men, but women appear to produce more oxytocin, which combats the effects of the stress hormones thereby bringing them back to a relaxed equilibrium faster than men. The BioEssays study suggests that these sophisticated biological differences are caused by a single gene. So the next time you see a guy running around the block screaming, don't stare — it's in his genes.

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