The study we discussed in class on sex differences in physiological responses left me feeling unsatisfied. I found myself questioning the assertion that there are no sex differences in physiological responses to stress so I looked into it further. It turns out that the type of stressor may play a very important role.
Most studies, including the one we looked at, use achievement and instrumental stressors (arithmetic tasks, public speaking, etc.). These have all been unsuccessful in demonstrating sex differences. Some researchers propose that achievement and instrumental stressors may not be as salient for women, therefore these stressors may not elicit a strong physiological response. As a result, other studies have begun to look at stressors associated with the increased risk of depression in women, specifically interpersonal stressors (social rejection, marital conflict, etc.). These studies did find physiological differences between the sexes, specifically elevated cortisol reactivity in females. Therefore, sex differences in physiological response to stress do occur in certain situations. A link to a study that used marital conflict as a stressor can be found here.
One thought on “The Importance of Stressor Type”
I am also a little skeptical about the assertion that males and females have the same physiological response to stress. So many other systems – such the pain response in Arielle’s post – appear to be different in men and women, it seems like there must be some differences in the stress story as well. A recent review paper (Chrousos 2010) looking at correlations between stress, sex, and immune response found that “generally, albeit not always, female mammals have more robust behavioral and somatic responses to stress and more potent immune and inflammatory reactions than males—differences that are inherent, sex steroid–mediated, or both and possibly the evolutionary products of natural selection of female and male roles.” While inflammatory reactions and marital interactions are very different ways of studying stress, I find it interesting that a similar trend seems to arise in both papers – the women have a greater biological response to stress. Perhaps women are more sensitive than males when it comes to responding to stress?