Stress and Gender: Common Triggers and How to Cope

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Dr. Mirgain on NBC-15

Dr. Mirgain spoke about how to manage stress during an NBC-15 interview. Watch the interview


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Dr. Shilagh Mirgain offers suggestions going beyond work-life balance and find the flow

Madison, Wisconsin - If you've had a stressful day, what do you do? Talk with friends or a partner about it, or withdraw and keep to yourself? How you answer that may depend on your gender.
"While it is a generalized statement, there are ways in which men and women tend to handle stress differently," explains health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. "Women often use emotion-focused coping. They change their emotional reactions to stress by using what psychologists call 'tending and befriending.'"
In other words, they reach out and talk with others about the issues affecting them.
Mirgain continues by explaining that men tend to turn to problem-focused coping. They are more likely to go into 'fight or flight' mode and take action, or try to problem solve - a coping mechanism that can sometimes cause friction between the genders.
"When a woman shares her stress, she's not necessarily looking for a solution, she's looking to engage with those around her. The problem is that sometimes a male friend or partner may want to offer ways of solving the cause of the stress, which can leave the woman feeling like she's not being heard or her experiences valued," says Mirgain.
Women are also more likely than men to internalize stress and beat themselves up mentally. As a result, women are more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and depression than men. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize stress and take their frustrations out on others. This makes them more vulnerable to acts of violence or turning to drugs and alcohol to cope.
Everyone is Affected by Stress
Mirgain is careful to note that it's not a matter of one gender being more or less affected by stress, and that every individual is different. But, both men and women experience stress and are affected by it equally. What can differ between the genders is not only how they react to it, but the situations that can trigger stress in the first place.
"Women are socialized to value the quality of their relationships. Consequently, when those relationships are not going well, it can be a cause of stress," explains Mirgain. "Similarly, when the people around them are stressed, women are more likely to take that on and feel stressed as well."
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Mirgain explains that men, in general, are raised to value their autonomy and sense of achievement. As a result, they are more likely to become stressed when competition occurs in the work place, or when experiencing problems on the job or financial pressures.
Understanding common triggers and coping mechanisms can help both men and women more effectively manage the stress in their lives. The challenge is recognizing the importance of dealing with stress in the first place.
"There's no doubt that stress negatively impacts our physical and mental well-being, and can even increase our risk of chronic health conditions like hypertension," says Mirgain. Because chronic stress can have a significant impact on health, it's important that both men and women learn ways to manage their stress. Mirgain points out that it is easy to develop "tunnel vision" and lose sight of the broader perspective.

Learning from Stress

"We can become so focused on the stress right in front of us, we lose perspective," says Mirgain. "But, stress can also present an opportunity to learn valuable lessons. If we're open to learning from the challenges it can become the difference between succeeding and staying stuck."
Figure Out How You Want to Respond
Mirgain suggests asking, "What is this difficulty teaching me?" and opening up to the possibilities of what can be revealed. Another suggestion is to think about ahead of time what are your common stress triggers and most importantly how you want to respond when they occur. Remind yourself of this intention before reacting, or take a time out when a situation is at risk of escalating, such as an argument.
The Power of the Pause
"It's the power of the pause," comments Mirgain. "Instead of just reacting, giving yourself a few moments can allow an individual to re-center and move forward in a productive way."
Another technique Mirgain suggests is a brief re-centering: take three deep breaths, concentrating on relaxing the shoulders and forehead, and if comfortable, including an affirmation like, "This too shall pass."
"You'll be in a more mindful and rational space to figure out the next best steps. Similarly, pausing for a 'time out' allows you to take a deep breath, and return to the issue in a calmer manner," she says.

Date Published: 01/08/2015

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgain

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