Gender differences in coping with stress. The role of social support in coping with stress, types of social support, including instrumental, emotional and esteem support.

Description, AO1 – Gender Differences in Coping with Stress:

One of the criticisms of the research into the acute stress response (the SAM pathway) is that it was derived from studies using male participants. Males are preferred because their hormone levels do not alter due to an ovulation cycle. Subsequent research with female participants has shown that there are significant gender differences in coping with stress. In this section of the booklet we are going to look at the physiological differences and psychological differences between gender and coping with stress.

Physiological (Biological) Explanations of Gender Differences:

  • Taylor et al (2000) first proposed the notion of the tend-and-befriend response to stress suggesting that this would have evolved as a typical response in females in situations of threat.
  • She argued that the fight or flight response would be displayed by both genders but, for females, there would be a greater adaptive advantage to produce a tend-and-befriend response, and thus this is the most common stress response for females.
  • The reason the tend-and-befriend response is a more adaptive response for females due to differential parental investment – females invest more in each single reproduction than males. Therefore, female stress responses have evolved to maximise the survival of their offspring.
  • How does this happen at a physiological level? Both males and females experience the same physiological response to stress (producing adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol).
  • Alongside the production of these hormones, another hormone (oxytocin) is produced in both males and females. Oxytocin (often referred to as the ‘love’ hormone) promotes feelings of bonding and general social-ness.
  • In males, testosterone levels also rise (which has a dampening effect on oxytocin), therefore, males become more aggressive (due to testosterone) and females seek closeness to others (because of unrepressed oxytocin). This response would be at its strongest in women who are breastfeeding because oxytocin is produced at this time.


Description, AO1 Psychological Explanations of Gender Differences: 

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguished between two different coping styles for dealing with stress.

(1) Problem-Focused Coping: A way to cope with stress by tacking the factor(s) causing the stress, often in a practical way.

(2) Emotion-Focused Coping: A way to cope with stress by tacking the symptoms of stress, for example, the anxiety that accompanies the stress.


Stress can be managed by attack the problem itself (problem-focused) but, often this is not possible, and so an alternative approach is to reduce the stress response (emotion-focused). There are gender differences in the way these styles are adopted between males and females.

Key Study – Gender Differences and Problem and Emotion Focused Coping

Various studies have found that men tend to have a problem-focus and women tend to have a preference for emotional-focus. Peterson et al (2006) investigated this assumption.

Procedure: Just over 1,000 men and women seeking fertility treatment at a hospital were recruited for a study on coping styles and asked to complete several questionnaires, including the Ways of Coping Questionnaire (designed by Lazarus and Folkman).


  • Found clear gender differences.
  • Women used confrontive coping (a style where they try to alter the situation to reduce the emotional impact (emotion-focused coping).
  • Women were also more likely to seek social support and avoidance when compared to men.
  • In contrast, men engaged in problem-solving and distanced themselves from the problem (a kind of problem focus).
  • There was some emotion-focused coping in men, indicating that gender differences in not clear cut.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Conclusion: Although to some extent it appears that females adopt a more emotion-focused stress management style and men adopt a more problem-focused stress management style. In the most part, it can be seen that the differences between psychological stress management in males and females is not clear cut.

Evaluation, AO3 of Gender Differences in Coping with Stress:


(1) Point: Research has suggested that women do not just adopt a tend-and-befriend response to stress. Example: For example, it would also be adaptive for women to be aggressive, in order to protect their offspring. Taylor et al note that, while females are less aggressive in general than males, they are aggressive towards an intruder who threatens their offspring. In other words, they are aggressive in situations requiring defense rather than the more generalised ‘fight or flight’ response in males. Evaluation: This suggests that the female response to stress is not straight forward/clear cut. Their response is not just tend-and-befriend but it encompasses a whole range of strategies that are adapted to parental investment by females.


(1) Point: There is a lack of research support for difference between male and female coping focus. Example: For example, the finding that men are more problem-focused and women more emotion-focused is not upheld by most research studies. Hamilton and Fagot (1988) assessed male and female first-year undergraduates over an 8-week period and found no gender differences in the type of ‘focus’ males and females adopt. Evaluation: This is a weakness because there is a lack of reliability surrounding the findings into gender differences and stress.


(2) Point: Another weakness when looking at gender differences in coping with stress and emotion and problem focused coping is that research relies on self-report methods as a way of collecting data. Example: For example, Peterson et al (2006) used the Ways of Coping Questionnaire to assess how females and males cope with stressors. This requires participants to think retrospectively about stressors that they have experienced and the ways in which they have dealt with such stressors. Evaluation: This is a weakness because the data collected may not be accurate, in which case the study would not be measuring what it intends to measure and therefore would lack internal validity (a cause and effect relationship would not be able to be established).

Description, AO1 – The Role of Social Support in Coping with Stress

People are support through times of stress by having a general safety net of relationships. For example, Nabi et al (2013) surveyed 400 undergraduate Facebook users and found that the number of friends was associated with stronger perceptions of social support and lower levels of stress and less physical illness. They concluded that ‘the more friends, the better’ was the best predictor of reduced stress. In general, increase in social opportunities is beneficial – Dickinson et al (2011) suggest that this may be a major consideration for older people. Their reduced social contact may be an important factor in their ill health.

Different Kinds of Support:

Social Factors Affecting Stress

Explaining the Effects of Social Support:

(1) The Buffering Hypothesis: Suggests that social support is especially important at times of times of stress but not necessary at other times. At times of stress, friends protect the individual from the negative effects of stress (act as a buffer); they help friends think about stress differently. This type of support is seen as the instrumental type because it is problem-focused.

(2) Direct Physiological Effects: A number of studies have demonstrated the direct effect of social support on the activity of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), possibly to increase relaxation.

The Role of Social Support in Coping with Stress – Key Research

Description, AO1 – Social Support and Coping with Stress – Key Research: Kamarck et al (1990)

Aim: The aim of this study was to investigate the role of social support when coping with stress.


  • 39 female student volunteers were recruited to perform a difficult mental task (stressful) while their physiological reactions were monitored (what physiological reactions will have been monitored? Heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, pupil dilation).
  • Each participant either attended the lab session alone or they were asked a close same-sex friend with them.
  • During the mental task, the friend was asked to touch their partner on the wrist. In order to avoid the participant feeling evaluated by the friend, the partner was also given a task to complete at the same time and therefore was not monitoring what the participants was doing.
  • All participants filled in a questionnaire related to mood and personality.                                                                                                                                                                          Findings:
  • Participants who were with their friend showed lower physiological reactions (e.g. lower heart rate) than those who were alone (supporting the direct physiological effect of social support).
  • For some of the tasks, only Type A participants showed reduced physiological responses. This also suggests the buffering hypothesis – buffering is only experienced by those who show a high level response to stressful situations.

Conclusion: The research shows that the presence of social support can help individuals deal more effectively with the negative effects of stress.


Evaluation, AO3 of Research Into The Role of Social Support in Coping with Stress:


(1) Point: Research has suggested that there are gender differences when it comes to the effectiveness of social support as a way of coping with stress. Example: For example, Lucknow at al (1998) found that in 25 out of 26 studies there was a gender difference suggesting that women were more likely to use social support than men. However, research has also indicated that there a further gender differences between the use of the different types of social support. For example, men tend to use instrumental social support more than women (because of their tendency to adopt a more problem-focused coping style with stress) whereas, women tend to respond better to emotional types of social support. Evaluation: This is a weakness because, most research in this area focuses on all male or all female samples which therefore questions the validity of studies focusing on social support and coping.


(2) Point: Research has suggested that, although social support usually focuses on support from one’s own species, the presence of pets can also reduce stress as well. Example: For example, Allen (2003) reviewed research findings on pets and reported that, for example, the presence of pets reduced blood pressure in children reading aloud, buffered the elderly against life event stresses and reduced cardiovascular risk. One study even found that talking to pets was more effective than talking to people in the reduction of the stress response. Evaluation: This shows that the emotional benefits of social support might be more to do with not feeling alone (which may cause anxiety).


(3) Point: Another weakness is that the relative importance of social support can be questioned. Example: For example, Kobassa et al (1985) conducted a study on the effects of hardiness on stress – but also included assessments of social support and physical exercise in this study of 70 business executives. They found that social support was the least important factor in reducing stress levels, and hardiness the most important. Evaluation: This is a weakness because the findings from Kabassa’s study contradict the original findings into the positive effects of social support on coping with stress therefore lowering the reliability of the research.