Looking after the needs of an aging family member inevitably results in stress-filled scenarios, regardless of a caregiver’s age, race, gender, etc. But new research on how men and women respond differently to life’s stress-inducing events may enhance coping techniques, and could even help save lives, say a group of Duke University scientists.

The traditional explanation of how stress affects human beings goes something like this: man (or woman) sees/smells/hears/perceives a threat; the “fight or flight” response of that man (or woman) kicks into high gear, flooding the body with adrenaline, increasing heart rate, dilating pupils and preparing muscles; the man (or woman) then chooses whether to fight, flee, or handle the threat in some other way.

As it turns out, men may actually be more primed for this primal response than women, according to an analysis of data on more than 300 adult Americans. “Normally when under stress, we fight back or run away,” says Wei Jian, M.D., lead study author and professor of medicine psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine. But, in his team’s study, “Women were not reacting that way as well as men were.”

Wei and his colleagues subjected study participants to a series of stressful tasks that included, among other things, talking about past experiences that made them angry.

By keeping tabs on the vital signs of these men and women during times of duress, the researchers found that women were far more likely than men to have decreased blood flow to the heart (ischemia) when they became anxious. Ischemia is a major contributor to mortality from heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. Women were also more prone to experiencing negative feelings and dangerous increases in blood clotting, while men responded to stress with increased blood pressure.

The study’s co-author, Zainab Samad, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of medicine at Duke, observes that while men managed to keep their outward emotions in check during times of angst more effectively that their female counterparts, they were not immune to the negative physical effects of stress. Samad believes that these findings could help doctors and patients better pinpoint and manage cardiovascular risk factors and treatments. “This could be a signal that we have been looking for to treat heart disease better, especially in women,” he says.

Tackling the stress response

Given that we no longer need to fight off attackers or run away from large predators, the primitive “fight or flight” response to stress is becoming increasingly ineffective and hazardous to our health. The stresses of modern life—family conflict, financial woes, worry over job loss—are things we cannot run away from or pound into submission.

Because there is no way to escape our sources of daily angst, more and more of us (especially family caregivers) are encountering the damaging effects of chronic stress, which include heart problems, sleep disruption, inflammation, a compromised immune system, depression and more. We must learn to more effectively manage our stress response so that it doesn’t erode our health.

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