Men and women handle it differently. / CJ Burton/USA WEEKEND
* The American Psychological Association’s annual survey, conducted online by Harris Interactive for the Washington, D.C.-based group, was completed in September among 1,226 adults ages 18 and older living in the United States.
Stressed women know it, live it and spend time trying to do something about it. Stressed men, not so much.
That may well be the perception — that women are more aware of feelings than men — and in the wake of new survey results released this week, numbers support the stereotype.
The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey finds that women historically have reported higher levels of stress than men and did so again in 2011. Over the past year, on a 1-10 scale of little-to-no stress to a great deal of stress, women report stress at a level of 5.4 and men at 4.8. But the gender divide is more pronounced when it comes to dealing with the stress or even wanting to own up to it.
“I honestly think women are more attuned to it,” says Pat Chang, 66, of Indianapolis, who was among those surveyed. “I don’t think they really feel it more, but men bottle things up more and are less likely to express their real feelings.”
Stress happens when people perceive that the demands they face — work, school or relationships — exceed their ability to cope, say experts with the psychological association. At times, some stress can be beneficial because it produces a boost that can fuel the drive and energy to get through tough situations, such as exams or work deadlines.
But an extreme amount of stress can be harmful to health. In addition to the emotional toll, untreated chronic stress can result in anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Research shows that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.
Men report being less concerned about managing stress and are more likely to say they are doing enough about it, while women think it’s more important to manage stress and believe they aren’t doing a good job of it, the survey finds.
“Men don’t place as much value on stress management as women. They don’t feel it impacts their health as much as women,” says clinical psychologist Norman Anderson, the APA’s chief executive officer. “Consequently, they’re not doing the things to help them manage it as well.”
“We know from many, many studies that social support is very, very beneficial for health, cardiovascular health and longevity,” says Mara Mather, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who studies stress and health. “It could be that under stress, women engage in strategies that are more beneficial for health than men do.”
Anderson says women have been found to be more comfortable reporting stress. But he also says it’s possible that women just have more stress in their lives. “In terms of certain societal issues — gender discrimination, sexual abuse, traumas — women experience them to a greater degree,” he says. “It may be true women are experiencing more stressful events and more of the things that lead to stress.”
More women than men use stress-busting strategies such as reading, exercising or being with friends and family.
Exercise is a stress reducer, says John Bartholomew, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas-Austin. “The data are quite clear that almost any type of exercise will be sufficient to reduce feelings of anxiety and tension,” he says. “Every form of physical activity has been demonstrated to produce a reduction in feelings of anxiety and negative moods.”
What’s new is that his research has found exercise also can reduce future stress. “The data suggest that people who exercise in the morning, for example, will have less of an increase in blood pressure and less of a feeling of stress if they are in a traffic jam on their way to work,” Bartholomew says.
But to get what he calls an “inoculation effect” for later stress, the activity has to be either “high-intensity” or “long-duration,” such as a hard run for 20 minutes or a 45-minute walk. That, he says, will have an effect for up to two hours.
His research also finds that “people who are dedicated exercisers exercise more under stress and those who are more infrequent exercisers exercise even less when they’re experiencing stress.”
Chang says she walks three times a week, does volunteer work and tries to focus on the positive. Her hobbies include photography, weaving and gardening. “I’m out in the yard even in the winter,” she says.
Despite the gender differences in stress management, the survey found that both sexes report being generally satisfied with their lives and almost equal levels of life satisfaction. They also report similar concern over their financial outlook; only 45% of men and 44% of women say they’re satisfied with their financial security.
Howard Hemsley, 73, who also took the survey, says he hasn’t saved enough for retirement. “The reason I’m driving a cab is because I was unable to find employment after having been laid off almost three years ago.”
Hemsley, a former legal word processor at a law firm, drives 12-hour shifts in Manhattan. He tries to think positively to cope with stress. “I listen to music and read,” he says. “Before I started driving, I went to the gym two or three times a week, but I had to cancel the gym membership.”
Despite the stress, Chang says, people just have to “keep going. Some things we can help, and some we can’t.”