After fifty years of stress research, almost exclusively on men, the standard doctrine has been that when under pressure, humans snap to fight or flight reactions. We hide away or we get angry, is the idea. Recently it occurred to stress researchers at UCLA that perhaps there’s a reason why women all do that cake-baking house-cleaning thing when deadlines loom near. They actually looked at women, instead of using a sample with 90% men, and found that yes, the rise in oxytocin in women under pressure leads us to tend and befriend. Looking after our children, spending time with our girlfriends and cleaning our houses actually refreshes us, they reckon, making us more able to deal with whatever pressures had made us feel stressed.

I’m going to stop feeling guilty when I have that amazing urge to chat for an hour and tidy my office just before a deadline. (via Danah)

10 thoughts on “stress

  1. HÂkon Styri

    Sounds reasonable. The best immediate remedy for coping with stress is to focus on something else, and if other people are causing the stressful situation it’s a good strategy to distract them as well.

    I guess the next logical step would be to assume that what we call “female intuition” is a highly developed skill for long term stress management.

  2. Jill

    I have found that when I feel nauseous at the thought of something – a new work-related commitment that sounds cool but makes me feel sick, for instance – my guts are usually right. There’s something wrong about whatever that thing is, or I already had more than enough work. I’ve learnt to trust my guts.

    I suppose that might be female intuition. I would imagine men get gut feelings about things too, though – surely?

  3. Jesper

    What you are describing sounds amazingly like procrastination, which I can assure you is not especially gender-specific. (I’ve just vacuumed my apartment instead of doing the work I was supposed to do.)

    But it would explain why men are more likely to isolate themselves when they are sick and less likely to see a doctor etc..

  4. Rayne

    Damn! I’d read that same entry at Danah’s blog, found it fascinating from the perspective of women’s consciousness. But reading your take on the same post and I’m flabbergasted I didn’t see this before.

    This is the same reaction that many women experience before giving birth; they have a “nesting instinct” within a short period before labor starts in earnest. One of my friends canned 3 bushels of tomatoes and scrubbed all her floors on her hands and knees the day before she gave birth; I thought she was crazy when she told me she was canning. In retrospect, it was “nesting”. Wonder if it’s because of the same rise in oxytocin?

    This same stress response could also explain why so many women tell me they are most creative and productive under pressure. Viva los ovarios!!

  5. Lisa Firke

    It happens monthly, too. Without PMS, nothing would be cleaned.

  6. nick

    They actually looked at women, instead of using a sample with 90% men

    Now, now, Jill. Control that agressive instinct to fight.

  7. Rayne

    Wow, did you notice this news article on a possible corollary? Shy people more vulnerable to infections — I might point out this study (or article) is flawed since all the subjects are MEN.

    Let’s assume the findings can be extrapolated to women as well; does this mean that women’s stress response might have been intended to prevent illness being passed to a newborn on birth (thinking oxytocin increases before then) as well as protecting women during other non-childbearing times?

    This really begs for a comparison study between men and women. Are men at greater risk because they don’t have the oxytocin-boost going for them?

  8. nick

    Limiting a study about the transmission of AIDS to men isn’t a flaw. The flaw is in the popular understanding of these studies, perhaps due to science journalism or perhaps due to the way researchers themselves protray their study results when discussing them with reporters.

    The characterization of the study as concluding that “shy people more vulnerable to infections” can be misleading. Without reading the paper about the study, which is not available online, I am sure that the sample was not only limited to men, but also limited to men with HIV in the same geographical area (within the United States) and probably men in about the same socio-economic class. The conculsions they can draw from such a study will apply to this group, but may turn out to be more general findings. Further research can determine whether the findings apply to things other than HIV replication, whether they apply to women as well, whether they apply to the HIV-positive men in Africa, etc. But unless you have a homogeneous group that you conduct research upon in the first place, you won’t have any solid conclusions to consider in a more general way.

    Many studies consider subjects who are all of a single sex; this is not a flaw. That a large majority of these studies use men, rather than women, as subjects, may be problematic, but there may be reasons for this that don’t have to do directly with the practice of science.

    In the case of this study, I suspect many more men than women are HIV-positive in the US, since about three times as many men as women have AIDS, so you should expect more studies with HIV-positive subjects to have all male subjects.

  9. Rayne

    Then the alternate is true, Nick — the article is flawed in saying that “shy people” are at greater risk.

  10. torill

    I think perhaps we need to think of “flaws” at different levels. While there can be excellent research done on a limited sample, to build a paradigm on research only from similar limited samples would be a flaw in the paradigm, but perhaps not in the singular cases.

    Journalists have a tendency to want to make everything valid for as large groups as possible, because large target groups and general interest is what sells large numbers of newspapers. The journalistic paradigm is built on generalisation while research paradigms tend to be built on specialisation. It has to get problematic when that crash.

    Hmm. Interesting. I need to remember that for some future lecture. Thanks Jill, Nick, Raine et.al.

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