Retreat or Reach Out? Exploring How Men and Women Respond to Stress

Mother and daughter huggingHow do you handle your emotions when life gets stressful? Do you shut down and internalize, withdrawing from social circles? Do you seek solace in substances, food, or marathon runs of television shows or movies? Do you curl up in a ball and forget how to function?

Or do you call, text, and meet up with friends with a fervency, hoping that someone—anyone—will either take the time to listen to you vent and offer some form of comfort and support or distract you from your dilemma with his or her own needs? Or do you simply find the strength within to meet whatever challenge you may face head on, determined to overcome?

Recent research reveals that differences in stress management may be determined largely by gender. Of course, there are always exceptions and generalizing traits by gender can often feel a bit too simplistic, but a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that in times of stress, men become more self-centered while women become more prosocial. Men retreat from other people, and women reach out for them.

Researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, Italy, found that people tend to respond to stress either empathically, with an understanding that everyone goes through difficult times and needs help in their moments of distress, or egocentrically, with the inability to distinguish between “self and other.”

Their starting hypothesis was that most people naturally lean toward the self-centered manner of dealing with stress, as external stimuli may be too overwhelming to process when personal matters become pressing. However, they discovered that while the male participants in the study did behave this way, the women were more prone to seek social engagement as a means of coping.

The participants were instructed to partake in stress-inducing activities like public speaking and mental arithmetic tasks. While in the midst of them, they were asked to imitate the movements of others, recognize emotional states in themselves and others, and make judgments adopting other people’s perspectives.

Again, women were found to be far more likely to connect with others in the face of stress. “What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women,” said one of the researchers.

Those who conducted and published the study believe this finding may be linked to levels of oxytocin—otherwise known as the love or bonding hormone—which are higher in women than in men.


SISSA (2014, March 17). Male, stressed, and poorly social. Press Release. Retrieved from

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  • Chastity

    March 20th, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    Yep exactly what I thought
    Women seem to be much more social creatures than men are and thrive a little more on social interaction with others than men do. With that being said I think that it only makes sense that when we are feeling sad and needy we are going to want the support from others instead of shying away from others in the way that a man could have the tendency to do.
    And this could ultimately be a huge deal breaker for many relationships if you look at it, because women are going to be seeking out even more love and attention when we are wanting to work through something while men might want a little more time on their own and naturally as a felamle we won’t understand that and it could drive a huge wedge between the partners.

  • allen

    March 20th, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    It all depends on the person. Everyone is diffenrent and I think that if you find the right person in your life, male or female, it will feel a bit easier to turn to him or her when you are in need.

  • Isabelle

    March 21st, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    We know that men and women are going to behave differently in different emotional situations- we are hard wired to react differently, that’s what makes men men and women women. I like that about us. I don’t think that either way is wrong or right, it just is what it is.
    Why try so hard to understand or change that? I am convinced that once you find the right person in your life then you will discover a way to interact with one another that will allow you to see things from the other’s perspective that helps you avoid too much conflict and too many misgivings and misunderstandings anyway. All of this retreating nonsense will be avoided because he will want to come to you and vice versa.

  • Pete w

    March 21st, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    You can’t change who someone is at heart

  • Marcus

    March 22nd, 2014 at 6:15 AM

    I agree with Pete w. I am who I am, and when I am going through something I just want to go through it and work on it on my own.
    I will be the first to let you know when I am ready to let you in again, and I don’t know what’s wrong with that.

  • Janeen

    March 24th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    Am I the one female who is the exception to the rule? Why should I want to drag anyone else into my misery when I feel terrible?

  • Cole

    March 25th, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Who am I to judge, and why would i even care? And why would someone else care? I work thrugh my stuff in my own way, it doesn’t hurt anyone, so let me be me and get through it that way. I lack the ability to understand why that even matters other than from a research point of view especially when most of us are only going to do what feels comfortable and natural to us in the first place. Other than that most of us are also going to do what has been shown and modeled to us by others, so if a man is retreating then it is probable that his father or the main male figure in his life reacted to things in exactly the same way.

  • Stanley

    April 10th, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    I think that basically women are looking for support whereas most men would rather just be left alone

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