For this post I wanted to explore why women's life expectancy is 4-5 years longer than men's and if perhaps some of this difference may be due to the way men and women respond to stress?
The" flight or fight" response has been the dominant model of the human response to the stress. While both men and women exhibit a similar biological pattern of response ( increased heart rate and blood pressure), men’s behavior tends to be more fight (aggression) or flight ( social withdrawal). On the other hand, psychologists have identified a third response which is exhibited more in women than in men called "tend and befriend". They found that females respond to stress by protecting themselves and their young ( tend) and by forming alliances with a larger social group, often other women ( befriend). While the male fight response seems to be regulated by androgen hormones and linked to sympathetic reactivity, female aggression tends to be more cerebral, moderated by the social conditions and the need to be defensive.
Another response to stress that most of us don’t talk much about is “lachrymal secretion”- otherwise known as crying. Dr William H Frey, a biochemist at St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota, found that emotional tears contain different substances than the tears we produce when our eye is irritated. Tears due to stress and emotions contain prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone ( triggers the release of cortisol, a stress hormone) and leucine enkephalin ( a natural pain killer). Crying is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation. Physically, the act of crying flushes toxic chemicals from our bodies and psychologically, crying allows us to identify our feelings which allows us to do something about our situation, therefore lifting our mood . I mean, who hasn't felt better after a big boo-hoo? As someone once said, " a bad tenant is better out than in". Research also tells us that people with stress related illnesses are less likely to be big criers.
But get this. While crying levels are much the same for boys and girls until puberty, on average women cry 47 times per year while men cry a mere 7 times. This may be because men may flush some of these chemicals through their sweat as they tend to sweat more. The presence of prolactin is thought to be why women cry more than men and women have 60 percent more prolactin than men. It also may because it has been more socially acceptable for girls to emote, whereas "big boys don't cry". But if men don't cry, identify their emotions and withdraw when stressed, does it not stand to reason that they may be at greater risk of stress related chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes? Just saying.
Interestingly, two cultures known for their stoicism, Britain and Japan, are finding inventive ways to get the tears flowing. Britain's first "crying club" opened in 2007 and in Japan, business people are now gathering to watch "tear movies" at clubs rather than going to karaoke bars.
Crying is not pathological, it is cathartic and healthy. As an old saying goes, "What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul".
So if you are feeling a bit down, frustrated or overwhelmed, know that all emotions serve a purpose and that it is healthy to join the “blub” and cry yourself a river from time to time. You will let go of something you no longer need and feel much better in the process.