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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Men and women are different, Psychology Today has learned:

"The gender difference in susceptibility to depression emerges at 13. Before that age, boys, if anything, are a bit more likely than girls to be depressed. The gender difference seems to wind down four decades later, making depression mostly a disorder of women in the child-bearing years.

As director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., presides over 'the best natural experiment that God has given us to study gender differences'--thousands of pairs of opposite-sex twins. He finds a significant difference between men and women in their response to low levels of adversity. He says, 'Women have the capacity to be precipitated into depressive episodes at lower levels of stress.'

Adding injury to insult, women's bodies respond to stress differently than do men's. They pour out higher levels of stress hormones and fail to shut off production readily. The female sex hormone progesterone blocks the normal ability of the stress hormone system to turn itself off. Sustained exposure to stress hormones kills brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, which is crucial to memory.

It's bad enough that females are set up biologically to internally amplify their negative life experiences. They are prone to it psychologically as well, finds University of Michigan psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D.

Women ruminate over upsetting situations, going over and over negative thoughts and feelings, especially if they have to do with relationships. Too often they get caught in downward spirals of hopelessness and despair.

It's entirely possible that women are biologically primed to be highly sensitive to relationships. Eons ago it might have helped alert them to the possibility of abandonment while they were busy raising the children. Today, however, there's a clear downside. Ruminators are unpleasant to be around, with their oversize need for reassurance. Of course, men have their own ways of inadvertently fending off people. As pronounced as the female tilt to depression is the male excess of alcoholism, drug abuse and antisocial behaviors. "

So, the study says that women respond differently than men to low levels of adversity.

It doesn't say how the researchers determined whether a given event falls into the low-level-of-adversity category or the higher-level-of-adversity category. One way of looking at this is that some events seem highly adverse to men but less so to women, while other events seem highly adverse to women but less so to men.

Evolutionary psychologists argue, for instance, that men and women have gender-specific psychological responses to different life events. A man is more likely to feel psychologically stressed by adverse episodes in his career than a woman is. A woman is more likely to feel stressed by adverse events in her reproductive life. (Or so they say, and remembering that their claims are statistical aggregates and not true of everyone.)

Thus, contrary to what these researchers say, it could be that men and women respond equivalently to perceived levels of stress, but that events that seem highly stressful to women simply happen more often than events that seem highly stressful to men.

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