Stress Personality and Gender

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Stress Personality and Gender
Chapter 10 Health, Stress, and Coping
Finally, the value of social support may depend on the kind of stressor being encountered. So although having a friend nearby might reduce the impact of some stressors,
it might amplify the impact of others. In one study, participants who were about to
make a speech experienced the task as more threatening—and showed stronger physical and psychological stress responses—when a friend was watching than when they
were alone (Stoney & Finney, 2000).
Stress, Personality, and Gender
The impact of stress on health appears to depend not only on how people think about
particular stressors but also to some extent on how they think about, and react to, the
world in general. For instance, stress-related health problems tend to be especially common among people whose “disease-prone” personalities lead them to (1) try to ignore
stressors when possible; (2) perceive stressors as long-term, catastrophic threats that they
brought on themselves; and (3) be pessimistic about their ability to overcome stressors
(e.g., Penninx et al., 2001; Peterson et al., 1998; Segerstrom et al., 1998; Suinn, 2001).
Other cognitive styles, such as those characteristic of “disease-resistant” personalities, help insulate people from the ill effects of stress. These people tend to think of
stressors as temporary challenges to be overcome, not catastrophic threats. And they
don’t constantly blame themselves for causing these stressors. One particularly important component of the “disease-resistant” personality seems to be dispositional optimism, the belief or expectation that things will work out positively (Folkman &
Moskowitz, 2000; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Rosenkranz et al., 2003; Taylor et al., 2000).
Optimistic people tend to live longer (Giltay et al., 2004, 2006) and to have more resistance than pessimists to colds and other infectious diseases (Cohen et al., 2003a, 2003b;
Pressman & Cohen, 2005), which helps explain why optimistic students experience
fewer physical symptoms at the end of the academic term (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992;
Ebert, Tucker, & Roth, 2002). Optimistic coronary bypass surgery patients tend to heal
faster and stay healthier than pessimists (Scheier et al., 1989, 1999) and perceive their
quality of life following coronary surgery to be higher than do patients with less optimistic outlooks (Fitzgerald et al., 1993). And among HIV-positive men, dispositional
optimism has been associated with lower psychological distress, fewer worries, and
lower perceived risk of acquiring full-blown AIDS (Johnson & Endler, 2002; Taylor
et al., 1992). These effects appear due in part to optimists’ tendency to use challengeoriented, problem-focused coping strategies that attack stressors directly, in contrast to
pessimists’ tendency to use emotion-focused coping strategies, such as denial and avoidance (Bosompra et al., 2001; Brenes et al., 2002). They also tend to be happier than
pessimists, a tendency associated not only with less intense and less dangerous physiological responses to stressors but also with greater success in life (e.g. Lyubomirsky,
King, & Diener, 2005; Steptoe, Wardle, & Marmot, 2005).
Gender may also play a role in responses to stressors. In a review of 200 studies of
stress responses and coping methods, Shelley Taylor and her colleagues found that
males under stress tended to get angry, avoid stressors, or both, whereas females were
more likely to help others and to make use of their social support network (Taylor et al.,
2000; Taylor, Lewis et al., 2002). Further, in the face of equally intense stressors, men’s
physical responses tend to be more intense than women’s (Stoney & Matthews, 1988).
This is not true in every case, of course, but why should such gender differences show
up at all? The gender-role learning discussed in the human development chapter surely
plays a part (Eagly & Wood, 1999). But Taylor also proposes that women’s “tend and
befriend” style differs from the “fight or flight” pattern so often seen in men because
of gender differences in how hormones combine under stress. Consider, for example,
oxytocin (pronounced “ox-see-TOH-sin”), a hormone released in both sexes in
response to social stressors (Taylor et al., 2006; Uvnas-Moberg, Arn, & Magnusson,
2005). Taylor suggests that oxytocin interacts differently with male and female sex
hormones—amplifying men’s physical stress responses and reducing women’s (Light et
al., 2005). This gender difference could lead to the more intense emotional and behavioral stress responses typical of men, and it might be partly responsible for men’s greater
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