While stress may be created equally for both men and women in today’s work world, how male and female bodies react to it is not equal. Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that the way men and women cope with acute stress and chronic stress are different and it may be linked to both hormones and evolution. This article will focus on acute stress (stress that happens once then goes away) and Part 2 will focus on chronic stress (stress that lasts at least a few weeks).
Picture this: You spent time preparing for the big presentation. Just before the presentation you are anxious and feel like the facts are muddled. When you take the stage, the stress of the presentation really kicks in. Suddenly, where you might have felt jumbled thoughts just before, you nail the presentation and even answer questions from the audience perfectly.
Some people say they strive on stress for peak performance but don’t often make the connection between stress and memory. Memory and retaining new information depends on communication between networks of neurons in the brain. Acute stress can cause the fight-or-flight syndrome to kick in, releasing stress hormones which can make those connections clearer in a stressful situation. It is believed that a reasonable amount of stress can make memory improve up to a certain point. But beyond that optimal point, memory performance decreases.
Until recently, it was assumed that men and women responded equally in finding that optimal stress point. Men’s brains tend to react to stress like the above scenario. But the case is not always so for women. As reported in Women’s Health, Larry Cahill, PhD, from the University of California at Irvine, found that women’s brain performance under acute stress seems to be linked to estrogen levels. When estrogen levels are higher at certain times of the monthly menstrual cycle, women don’t have the same memory performance when exposed to acute stress as they do during lower estrogen times. So when presented with equally stressful situations, men’s memories perform consistently while women are less consistent, depending on estrogen levels. Women who recognize memory challenges linked to their monthly cycle can take extra steps to reduce stressful situations and relax to help increase memory performance.
And for anyone worried that this means that men are naturally better equipped to handle stress and thus are set up for more success in the work world, “Part 2” will discuss how women tend to handle chronic stress better than men.
Women looking for ways to grow professionally and personally can check out the following local organizations:
- Young Women’s Alliance
- Austin Women in Technology
- Austin Young Chamber