We can’t call PTSD a normal reaction and a psychiatric disorder at the same time. Of course, if we accepted more forms of suffering as normal, as many cultures do, rather than calling more and more human problems mental disorders, we wouldn’t be faced with this conundrum.
4. Men and women respond to stress differently because of genetic and hormonal differences.
For more than a decade, differences in women’s and men’s responses to stress have been linked to oxytocin, a hormone that is released during and after a mother gives birth. Research on rodents suggesting that oxytocin may encourage mothers to behave protectively toward their young when under stress has been used to buttress the claim that men and women naturally respond to stress differently.
John Gray, the author of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” has run amok with this research, calling oxytocin the “cuddle hormone” and insisting that taking care of children, doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning are “oxytocin-producing” and therefore stress-reducing for women, but not for men. I don’t think many women find it relaxing to cuddle up to the refrigerator at the end of the day, but maybe I’m living on Saturn.
We can reliably conclude one thing about gender differences in stress response: Women and men act differently when they are under stress. But, as West Virginia University epidemiologist Sarah Knox has found, this isn’t the same as saying that men and women have different hormonal responses. Even some neuroscientists have warned against interpreting biological differences as evidence of distinct genetic hard-wiring.
Biology has as much to do with our experiences as it does with our genes. If Gray spent enough time in the kitchen, maybe his oxytocin would eventually follow him there.
5. If women learn to cope better with stress, they’ll be able to resolve work-family conflict.
Since the 1970s, when middle-class women began entering the workforce in large numbers (low-income women, of course, have always worked outside the home), they’ve been deluged with advice about how to manage the stress of combining paid work with family responsibilities. Too much of the work-life balance debate is focused on women’s illusory choices: If we can work part-time, have flexible schedules or work from home, we’ll be okay. And if Mommy’s okay, everybody else will be okay, too.
But there’s something wrong here. Work and family aren’t having a conflict; it’s work and workplace policies, work and limited child-care options that are at odds. The conflict is between family and work as king and fit only for kings — that is, work designed for men with wives at home. And it’s related to the fact that parental caregiving is an unpaid and undervalued activity.
If we stop treating stress — and women’s stress in particular — as the problem to be solved and instead work for the kinds of social and political changes that will benefit women, men and children, maybe then we can find a real solution for women’s “stress.”
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