Gender Differences in the Connection Between Social Support and Health

Dr. Hillary Goldsher, Psy.D, MBA

Hillary Goldsher

Clinical Psychologist

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Psychological and physical differences between men and women have been discussed and debated throughout the course of history. This dialogue continues within the many arenas concerned with disparities between the sexes. In the arena of physical health, there is a myriad of important information related to gender differences. Some particularly interesting research explores the critical variations in how men and women cope with stress and how their distinct tactics impact their physical health. The findings suggest that women tend to seek out a support network to help sustain them during times of great stress. In contrast, men are inclined to try to manage stress on their own. Research suggests that the inclusive approach that women tend to employ promotes better physical health then the autonomous approach that men tend to utilize. This conclusion has significant implications for wellness amongst men and women. If true, men may be able to improve their physical health by mobilizing a support system, rather then attempting to “go it alone”. Additionally, women should continue to adhere to their natural instinct to seek help, rather then to compel themselves to “be strong” and self sufficient.

In general, good health is defined as the absence of disease, discomfort, dissatisfaction, disability, and death (Hawthorne). There are many factors that promote good health. It appears that the existence of social ties is a key factor in the development and maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. In the 1930’s, scientists at the Human Population Laboratory of the University of California Berkeley initiated a study of residents of Alameda County, California. The study focused on the lifestyle of a group of individuals over an extended period of time. The goal was to monitor the physical condition of the individuals and to uncover the factors that play a role in the preservation of good health. Decades later, the researchers revealed a number of factors that contributed to the wellbeing of certain participants. These factors include no smoking, consistent sleep patterns, a balanced diet, and minimal alcohol consumption. Additionally, they found better health to be associated with having strong social ties. In the context of this study, these social connections included being married, having regular contact with friends and relatives with whom one feels emotionally close, and belonging to a church or other community organizations (Breslow 1980). Likewise, Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist in San Francisco, completed a study which revealed that patients with heart disease who attended a support group for people with heart conditions could, in conjunction with other healthy behaviors, reverse existing damage to the heart (Ornish 1990). These studies not only emphasize the psychological value of social connection and meaningful relationships but also suggest that this type of coping strategy can actually improve physical health. Based on various research studies, it appears that women have an innate tendency to pursue a coping mechanism for stress that emphasizes social ties. In contrast, men are inclined to withdraw, perhaps feeling compelled to follow the social stereotype that expects men to be strong and self sufficient. However, this approach may facilitate negative consequences. It appears men would be better served by shunning this traditional belief and pursuing a supportive social network.

Adopting a new approach to stress management may prove to be a difficult task for men. Emotional withdrawal appears to be a precedent that men employ in various life circumstances. Research points to a similar pattern of withdrawal in the context of distressed heterosexual marriages. Among these distressed couples, men are more likely than women to withdraw from conflict. Women are more likely to verbally engage their male partners in conversations about problems (Christensen 1990). This is not a comment about which approach is more effective in the context of marriage. Instead, this underscores the tendency of males to withdraw in stressful circumstances. This inclination may be connected to the physiological implications of stress for men and women. Obrist proposed that men are more physiologically reactive to stress than women, particularly in the adrenergic parts of the cardiovascular system and in the stress-related endocrine responses (Obrist 1981). Men tend to experience more distressful physiological symptoms in the face of stress, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, men may attempt to avoid negative affect in close relationships because it is more physically punishing for them than it is for women (Gottman 1994). Although withdrawal may alleviate short term physical distress, it may contribute to the deterioration of physical health over the long term due to the lack of social ties associated with this approach.

It is possible that a woman’s inclination to pursue social connection in response to stress and a man’s tendency to employ a strategy of self-reliance is biological in nature. Shelley E. Taylor, scientist and professor at UCLA, dedicated an entire book to this compelling topic. She suggested that women have an innate inclination to tend to the wellbeing of their family. She also suggested that women have a natural tendency to turn to the social group in times of stress. She appropriately called this pattern the “tend and befriend response” to stress (Taylor 2002). In her attempt to explain the impetus for this pattern of behavior, Taylor suggested that a woman’s “tending” inclination is very adaptive in times of stress. During turbulent times, a woman’s ability to attend to the needs of her children and extended family serves as a source of protection for the family unit. Taylor suggests that women rely on social ties for help in carrying out this difficult task. This theory is in sharp contrast to the familiar fight or flight response to stress. This premise suggests that human beings have a physiological response to danger or stress that compels them to either engage in battle or to run away. Taylor suggests that while this response may be practical for men, it is impractical for women. Taylor argues that women are unable to engage in physical confrontation or to flee a dangerous or stressful situation due to their responsibility to protect their children. She concludes that it is this innate sense of maternal responsibility that contributes to the way in which women respond to stress.

To support her position, Taylor highlights research that indicates that social isolation increases the risk for all causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, or suicide (Taylor 2002). Taylor also emphasizes additional research that suggests that social ties can enhance physical health. David Spiegel, a Stanford psychiatrist, conducted an experiment that underscores the importance of social support in the context of physical health. The subjects of Spiegel’s research were women who had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Spiegel hypothesized that the women who participated in a regular cancer support group would have a better survival rate then those women with the same diagnosis who did not. Spiegel and his colleagues followed this group of women for one year. At the end of one year, the women involved in the support group lived twice as long as those who did not participate in the group. These astonishing results underscore the health benefits of social ties. Some psychologists and biologists believe that social support not only reduces stress but also may stimulate neuroendocrine benefits. These benefits to the neuroendocrine system may, in part, explain why the existence of a social support network may promote good health (Taylor 2002). Specifically, the hormone Oxytocin appears to be released during times of stress. Biologists suggest that when released during times of stress, this hormone compels people to come together. As noted, this “coming together” can be very beneficial to one’s health. Oxytocin is also released in the company of others when soothing experiences such as hugging, touching, and bonding occur. Exposure to Oxytocin provides neuroendocrine benefits and promotes good health. This underscores the importance of social ties in the pursuit of good health and wellbeing.

There are additional explanations for the positive effects that social ties have on health. Social ties are a source of nurturing and solace during times of great stress. This connection likely helps people to calm down during periods of emotional turmoil (Taylor 2002). Handling stress with a calm and even demeanor reduces the possibility of experiencing negative physical effects from stress such as increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, and an inability to sleep or eat. Experiencing fewer negative physical symptoms associated with stress promotes long term physical well being.

These findings certainly offer a compelling argument in favor of establishing and maintaining a strong social network. The presence of social ties seems to promote good health over time. It is logical to assume that social ties also promote psychological well being. It stands to reason that the support of a social network provides a sense of protection and comfort during times of both stress and joy. It is therefore recommended that men forgo a strategy of self-sufficiency during difficult times. Instead, men and women alike should develop a strong social network that serves to provide support during times of turmoil and times of peace. After, all it is good for their health.


Breslow, L., Enstrom, JE (1980). "Persistence of health habits and their relationship to mortality." Preventative Medicine 9: 469-483.

Christensen, A. H., CL (1990). "Gender and social structure in demand/withdraw pattern of marital conflict." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59: 73-81.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Hawthorne, N. How to be Healthy, Las Positas College Health.

Obrist, P. A. (1981). The cardiac-somatic relationship. New York, Plenum Press.

Ornish, D. e. a. (1990). "Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?" Journal of American Medical Association.

Taylor, S. E. (2002). The Tending Instinct. New York, Times Books.

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