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Stress of the Sexes: A Look into the Psychological and Physiological Response

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Stress of the Sexes    

Perceptions of Stress Based on Sex

Stress of the Sexes: A Look into the Psychological and Physiological Response.

Stress of the Sexes: A Look into the Psychological and Biological Response.

Stress. We experience this systematic expression in our day to day lives. For some they experience stress more often than they’d like, while others appear to be “stress free”. Though what exactly is stress and how does it affect us? Stress, as defined in Exploring Psychology: Sixth addition in Modules, is “the process by which we perceive and respond to certain events, called stressors, that we appraise as threatening or challenging.” (Myers, 2005, p. 449) Stress is looked at in two different forms, perceived stress and stressor exposure. Perceived stress is how each person views the events in their life as being stressful or not, and if perceived as stressful, how stressful the event is. Stressor exposure is an event that is presented to a person as being stressful, and whether it is threatening or challenging. It is important to know the how you perceive these events because how a person reacts to stress can have positive or negative affects on your health.

As found by Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) your reactions to stress mentally and physically will manifest different dependent on your sex. As described later in this review, it will show that their study covers the correlation between sex and it physical affects based on the person’s perception of the event. Also covered is a lack of correlation between perceived stressful events between males and females.

How We React to Stress

        There have been many studies on stress and its negative health affects to the immune system. In fact Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) found that “numerous studies have suggested that prolonged high levels of psychological stress predict poorer health” (p. 147) and that “numerous studies have found sex differences in rates of stress, depression and specific negative health symptoms”. (p. 148) It has yet to be determined by many of these studies whether or not there is some form of relationship between the effects of stress on health based on a person’s sex. This study is purely focused on the fact that a correlation may be present between perceived stress and stressor exposure based on whether the subject is male or female.

Every person is exposed to different forms of stress on almost a daily basis. Though each person will have a differing opinion as to whether an event is stressful and the extent of that stressor. Many have debated that “exposure to an event that most people would assess as stressful leads to health impairment only if the exposed individual perceives the event as stressful.” (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 148) This would make any psychologist wonder if we should put weight into how we perceive a stressful event. Yet many have studied that and shown that these elements manifest differently in our health. “For example, Cohen (1993) observed that while perceived stress (and negative affect) predicted risk of infection and immunosuppression, stressor exposure predicted rates of clinical symptoms.” (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 148)

An issue with all of these studies was there wasn’t a significant look into the health affects from stress based on the sex of the individual studied. We find that women usually express stress through psychological activities, such as depression. Men, on the other hand, react in the complete opposite showing a greater propensity for physiological activities, especially those that cause negative health effects (i.e. smoking and alcohol use). This can’t be decided as concrete though since there have been studies that prove that men are more likely to have a psychological response and women to have a physiological reaction. The strange thing about these common reactions is that men have a higher morality rate even though they usually complain less of experiencing negative health problems.

 The current study covers both sides of the debate looking to see if exposure to stress or the perception of stress is more significant with the sexes and how it manifests with physical health problems. This study will measure stress perception as “perceived stress and negative affect” and stressor exposure as “rates of exposure to typically stressful events”. (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 148)

To determine whether how we perceive stress based on the stressor exposure (and on the subject’s sex) Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) used a few different measuring techniques. The techniques utilized were the: Spielberger State Anxiety (Spielberger, 1983), Spielberger Trait Anxiety (Spielberger, 1983), Beck Depression Inventory or BDI (Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erlbaugh, 1961), Daily Hassle Scale (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981), and the Perceived Stress Scale or PSS (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). All of these tests are questionnaires where the subject would base their answers on a four or five-point scale. Also two other questionnaires were made specifically for the study looking at stressors and health symptoms. These two studies created were based on four-point scales as well. Used for the study were both male and female participants totaling to 107 members. The age range was 18-21, and each participant was an undergraduate student in an introductory psychology course from a collaboration of small liberal art colleges throughout California. These questionnaires are all an excellent choice for gathering data since they look for the participants’ opinions. This definitely helps since a perceived stress can only be decided by the person being exposed to a stressor. The multiple questionnaires offered give us a large view and collection of data completely of the participants stress perception, which is the main reason for this study. Also it is good that these questionnaires are based on four or five-point scales since we’re then able to get comparable results across all participants, without restraint since nothing has to be verbalized by the participant.

Using the results of all the questionnaires it was found that women found that they had a higher rate of hassles in their lives, compared to the men. It was found that women also had a tendency to have slightly higher scores overall, though none with any significant difference other than with the hassles questionnaire. The astounding part of this study was there was a significant correlation between health symptoms and the psychological state, only in the women, yet men showed no correlation. For men their psychological state was not related to the stress. Men only expressed a physical relationship to stressors and daily hassles. This would go to show that men do not experience stress in any great intensity when presented with such illnesses as depression, but only find themselves affected when in a current stressful event. Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) did observe that “women and men reported comparable levels of perceived stress, but women reported higher levels of exposure to stress. Measures of exposure to stress (Stressors and Hassles) were positively correlated with health problems for both women and men, but the measure of perceived stress (i.e. state anxiety, trait anxiety, perceived stress, and depression) were strongly correlated with health problems only for women”. (p. 152)

From the results of this study we are able to conclude that dependent on your sex, the reaction to stress will differ. It also goes to show that exposure to stressful events may be enough to elicit negative health symptoms. This can be determined by the test results that the highest negative health symptoms that are predicted come from our stressor exposure compared to how the stressor is perceived. This may be because each individual perceives exposure to stress in different ways. It also went to show that “the experience or perception of psychological stress has been shown to be dependent on the extent to which the individual appraises the event as being stressful”. (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 152) Yet the study only found that in females is there any relationship between negative health symptoms and stress perception. These results are fairly consistent with other studies that have touched on stressor exposure.

Though as conclusive as we find these results with previous studies, there are some discrepancies. These differences would be based on the measurements used in each study. As we know, measurements in studies need to comparable and consistent. This was made apparent by “Cohen (1993) who found measures of perceived stress to be related to risk of infection (i.e. immune or other biological markers), whereas rates of stressor exposure were related to clinical symptoms”. (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 153) To get more concise results overall it would be wise for each study to use stressors and hassles that are consistent and affect all age groups of women and men.

Another problem with all of these studies is how women and men differ in their coping mechanisms. It is often found that men deal with their stress by trying to deduce the reasoning for the stress (i.e. problem solving techniques). Women are often found to use techniques that are based on emotion when it comes to their stressors.  Knowing this it would be expected that men have a better coping strategy. Yet as Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) stated “numerous studies have also strongly suggested the use of social support as an effective buffer of stress-related health decline, and the preferential usage of social support by females is one of the best-supported sex difference in the coping literature”. (p. 153) Also supporting the fact that women may have a better coping mechanism by being emotion-based is “that Benyamini (2000) found that negative affect predicted higher mortality rates in older males but lower morality rates in older females”. (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 153)

These discrepancies can only be handled by making a more precise system of tests that can be comparable to any age group of men and women, and as to whether or not we look into clinical symptoms or mortality rates. Also we are at a loss of information concerning stress on participants based on current health conditions and hormones expressed by stressor exposure. One hormone we found that may have an affect on physiological response from stress is oxytocin, which is “known to have a suppressive effect on other aspects of stress response, and therefore may serve as a buffer to stress-related illness or mortality, in females.” (Weekes, MacLean, and Berger 2005, p. 154) This let’s us know that by testing only for participants perceived stress that we may be missing crucial information regarding how their bodies themselves actually assist with blocking the full affects of exposure to a stressor.


Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) were able to find that there are distinct differences in how men and women express stress in psychological or physiological reactions. They also were able to confirm that stress and depression do have a strong relationship with the representation of negative health symptoms. It was also shown that as different as men and women react based on stressor exposure and perceived stress, they closely relate when it comes to their stressors and hassles. Yet even with the extensive amount of questionnaires provided to each participant, there’s enough data and variables missing that more testing on the subject would be important to receive.

Overall the study is comparative and was able to confirm that dependent on your sex you will either react psychologically or physiologically. It would be wise to look into making a more generalized study that not only college students, but an older generation may participate in as well. Also as stated by Weekes, MacLean, and Berger (2005) it would be important to bring in data that links the sexes and stress with such variables as hormones and other physical responses. It may also be good to place participants in a controlled environment where we can expose them to stressors and hassles, while measuring their physiological responses (i.e. hormone levels, heart rate). A use of participants from different Socioeconomic Status (SES) would also benefit further study into the affects of stress on the men and women. There is so much to study with not only stress, but with men and women, that many more studies will need to be conducted in hopes of finding the answer to stress and the sexes.


Weekes, N. Y., MacLean, J., & Berger, D. E. (2005). Sex, stress, and health: Does stress predict health symptoms differently for the two sexes? Stress and Health 21: 147-156

Myers, D. G. (2005). Stress and Illness. In N. Fleming, C. Brune, L. Strange (Eds.), Exploring Psychology (pp.449-462). New York: Worth Publishers.

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