Understanding our genetic and social programming to avoid stress
(Stress has been part of the recipe of human survival and growth. A ‘manageable’ level of stress acts as a motivator, while an ‘unmanageable’ level of stress is dysfunctional. And that is the relationship between stress and success or failure.
Stress causes motivation to be high which in turn causes higher performance that generally will lead to more success or reward. Conversely, distress will lower motivation and therefore lower performance and resulting success. Lower than expected success could be termed failure. Also, failure causes an increase in stress until it becomes distress.
For the purposes of this discussion we use the term failure to describe a professional or personal setback and use stress to describe debilitating stress or distress.)
I have seen many ups and downs, I’ve been a successful entrepreneur creating a company with a worldwide footprint, and I lost several million dollars within a year. I went from being very successful to being bankrupt within months. And it has been a long haul back. The lessons and the journey has been a subject of my Rakesh Shukla TEDx talk ( Fight Like a Dog: TEDx talk by Rakesh Shukla).
The company I founded TWB_ is largely made of women who have joined the workforce sometimes after taking a career break. TWB_ itself has been featured in the mainstream business press including Mint/WSJ for being a women-focused employer. However, it was the period of the complete financial and personal meltdown that gave me a close view of how one handles professional setbacks and stress.
As we went from a leading company into a 3-4 month free-fall, I lost hundreds of employees. Many of them were friends who had worked with me for many years. But I had two people who stood with me — both were women. This made me see not only how I handled stress and failure but how they did too. One of them was my wife, Helen Shukla, co-founder of TWB_ and the other was Sangeeta Velegar, the then VP of Marketing of TWB_ and the branding and marketing brain behind VOSD. And they handled stress very differently. Why was it so?
Personally I have no doubt that if they are at an equal professional footing, women show more resilience in the face of professional stress, bounce back quicker and are mentally healthier. However ‘being’ at an equal footing is a loaded statement, since childhood and adult conditioning is a major difference in what men and women define as success (or failure), and what causes stress.
Professional failure hits men a lot harder than it does women. As a matter of fact, research shows that there is a causal relationship between unemployment (can be used as a surrogate for professional failure) and early death in both genders! But the relationship is twice as strong for men.
The study, which is a survey of 20 million cases worldwide, shows that unemployment causes stress and negatively affects one’s socio-economic status, which in turn leads to poorer health and higher mortality rates. Unemployment — especially when it occurs early or mid-career — increases the risk of premature mortality by 78% among men and 37% among women. The risk of death is particularly high for those who are under the age of 50. One way that sexism works is that men get paid more, but they’ll also die sooner if they lose their jobs!
As my and TWB_’s free fall started I realised that no one talks about failing while they are failing. The only time people can admit defeat is when they are back on top and it fits into a tidy narrative of having overcome the challenge. However it is not what it feels like when you’re unemployed or bankrupt, it doesn’t feel like a first act; it feels like it’s everything. While it was happening that failure did nothing but fill me with regret and self-loathing.
However, it was not me who realised that first, it was the two women. In Helen’s case, she had much less of a view of the severity of the problem I faced, but once the contours of the problem were known she got busy doing what she could do to make it better. The other, Sangeeta, did the same but did not have the professional and emotional precedent. So she tried to understand the financial crises and how to handle it, and understand the emotional state and factor like how I would respond to customers.
This was while I veered from plunging headlong into a fight for survival and retreating back to lick my wounds. Soon, I not only started recognising this pattern but realised it was the support system I had and that piqued my curiosity.
Different people can see the same events in different ways, and it is particularly evident when it comes to failure. The same happened with the people around me. What an employee regards as satisfactory may be incompetence by his manager for instance. But as I found, these reactions are often more problematic than the original event — the reason why and how people take negative feedback is a major determinant of career success. There is also an inherent difference between men and women.
Different behavioural responses
Men and women respond different to risk and rewards, and consequently to failure and rejection. In a 2007 study Professors Muriel Niederle at Stanford and Lise Vesterlund at the University of Pittsburgh had groups of two men and two women perform simple addition problems.
In the first round, participants were paid $50 cents per right answer; in the second round they had a playoff and the winner would be awarded $2 per correct question, while the other participants get nothing. Later, the participants were asked to choose how they wish to be paid: the right answer or winner take all. 75% of men chose that the winner takes all, while only 35% of women chose it, though the actual success rate was exactly the same for both.
Clearly, men and women tend to deal with success, or lack of it, and stress in very different ways. Most men will respond to overwhelming stress and a sense of failure by withdrawing and feeling lonely. This increased loneliness in turn causes the world to be seen as in an adversarial relationship. Most men would say ‘I don’t talk about my feelings when I’m stressed. It’s easier just to let it pass and move on.’ Women on the other hand are more likely to vent their feelings including ‘cry to feel better’ or ‘talk to feel better.’ But why?
Most driven men also have bizarre reactions to professional failure and have characteristically male methods of coping. It’s typical of ‘alpha male’ characters to have been so driven to succeed that failure cripples them more than most people. Even though the fear of failure is a massive unspoken truth in all professions, it’s denial is even more common.
Here are some of the behavioural differences between men and women towards failure:
- Deny vs Accept!: Men often see the very acknowledgement of failure as a sign of weakness and react to that fear with stereotypically male behaviour of avoiding the problem altogether. Or they behave in the way they think they’re supposed to, and those options are pretty limited. Women don’t have such aggressive denial — they are more likely to process failure and manage the feeling when they don’t reach their goals. Women are far more accepting of the situation and far more honest about their concerns. They are also more likely and willing to tackle the problem and think out of the box.
- ‘Fight or Flight’ vs ‘Tend and Befriend’: Men have predominantly a fight or flight response but women are more likely to deal with stress by ‘tending and befriending’. Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self, offspring and family, which promotes safety and reduces distress. Befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process. Why does that happen? Oxytocin or the ‘love hormone’ combined with progesterone influence that behaviour. Men have much lower quantities of these in their system; the higher testosterone will take the true fight or flight response — either bottling it up or fighting back.
- Escape in an activity vs Escape to a group: Women often seek support to talk out the emotional experience, to process what is happening and see what can be done, by joining or creating time-based support groups. Men often seek an escape activity to get relief from stress or to create a diversion. This can be hitting the gym or drinking more.
Women experience greater sadness and anxiety and are more susceptible to depression than men, while men show a greater reward motivation (craving), emotional stress and have a greater risk for alcohol-use disorders than women. These differences are not just individual; most are hardwired into us.
Cause 1: Genetics and evolution
At the time of handling stress and failure, it turns out that my thinking was almost exactly how any man would think. Human brains and bodies are essentially identical to those of our ancestors living half a million years ago.
Even though we now live in a time when our survival no longer depends on the position in a hierarchy, the male brain still operates as if it does. For men, it is the modern equivalent of moving down the hierarchy and it can evoke very powerful emotions. That’s why professional failure feels so much worse for men than the social failures which stress women.
Stress has been part of the recipe for human survival and growth. While it looks to have changed from running for our lives in the jungles to succeeding at work, the single biggest change is how stress has evolved from dealing with a single short-term crisis to have become chronic stress. Chronic stress is not why the body has evolved. Is there a difference in how men and women feel and cope with it? It turns out there is.
The genotype for the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene, which is involved in supporting the growth and differentiation of brain cells in men and women has found to be the influencer. So we indeed feel stress differently.
The BDNF gene is characterised by a variant that codes for either the valine (Val) or methionine (Met) amino acids. Individuals carry two copies of each gene, with the Val variant being more common. In a study, subjects carrying two copies of the VAL variant (Val/Val), were compared in their cortisol response to those carrying one copy of the Val and one of the Met (Val/Met).
When looking at the responses of the subjects researchers found that the Val/Met men and women carriers had nearly equal cortisol levels. However, the men with the Val/Val variant had a higher cortisol response (and therefore a higher reaction to stress) than the men carrying the Val/Met variant. For the women, surprisingly, the opposite was found: the Val/Val women had a lower cortisol response than the Val/Met women.
Why the Val/Val variant produces opposite stress reactions (raising it for the males and lowering it for the females) remains unclear. But because of the predominance of the Val/Val type for both sexes, the males showed overall greater stress in the testing than the females.
Cause 2: Conditioning as adults
The social conditioning as adults for men and women are very different. From early adulthood male self-esteem is built around adequacy of performance, and female self-esteem is often built around adequacy of relationships.
Women are socialised to value the quality of their relationships. Consequently, when those relationships are not going well, it can be a cause of stress. When the people around them are stressed, women are more likely to take that on and feel stressed as well. Women are often at risk of letting other people’s needs determine hers, while her own needs are ignored.
Men, in general, are raised to value their autonomy and sense of achievement. As a result, they are more likely to become stressed when competition occurs in the workplace, or when experiencing problems on the job or financial pressures. Their job tells men not only where they fit in but also who they are. It goes to the heart of their identity, purpose and well-being. The sense of humiliation with the loss of identity and masculinity can lead to despair to the point of suicide.
This mindset also leads men to live more dangerously. They are far more susceptible to turn to substances to regain a sense of control, or may stop taking care of themselves entirely by not exercising, eating poorly or engaging in reckless sexual behaviour.
Relationship loss for women and performance failure for men are the greatest stressors. How men and women enter stress is also different.
● Women let their social and familial relationships set the agenda. Social self-sacrifice in relationships is how most women enter stress.
● Men let rivalry and employments set the agenda. Achieving a winning performance at all costs is how most men enter stress.
Because of this conditioning, their coping mechanisms differ as well. It is common for a woman to talk about her stress but she’s not necessarily looking for a solution, she’s only looking to engage. The problem is that her male counterpart will try to offer ways of solving the cause of the stress — this can leave the woman feeling like she’s not being heard or her experiences being valued.
Cause 3: Conditioning in childhood
The other big difference is how men and women have been taught to process failure from childhood. Studies show that the psychological experience of bouncing back from failure isn’t universal: young girls, in particular, struggle more to recover from failures than their male counterparts. In a study, fifth-grade students were given a deliberately confusing task. Girls were the most deterred by the experience, and the girls with the highest IQs had the hardest time!
When young boys struggle to pay attention and follow directions early in life, they are told to put more effort or try harder. This translates into beliefs that poor performances can be overcome and don’t reflect inherent, irreversible flaws. Boys tend to attribute failure to controllable circumstances.
On the other hand, young girls who are better able to follow instructions are often praised for being ‘good’ or ‘clever’. This implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. So when girls make mistakes they interpret this as a sign of lack of ability. If they don’t initially succeed they prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.
In observational studies, girls are more likely to give up in the face of a stressful academic situation and this is directly connected to the stereotype that girls are ‘bad’ at math and science — this is linked to underperformance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). When girls buy into the stereotype that they’re bad at math, they don’t see this as a correctable issue. Instead, it confirms (wrongly) that they simply have less ability.
Another factor in early childhood conditioning is intrinsic motivation. This is the quality that lets a person rough out the tough moments — autonomy is one of the core ingredients of intrinsic motivation. It turns out girls are more sensitive to someone interfering with autonomy than boys.
From early childhood, behavioural stereotyping is for girls to please others and they have a greater sensitivity to control. Control can be with rewards, threatening punishment or offering certain kinds of praise. They care more about feedback from teachers and parents and are more sensitive to feeling controlled. In ‘control’ circumstances a girl’s motivation plummets while a boy rises.
Cause 4: Biological response
One of the most important reasons why men and women react differently to stress is hormones. Three hormones that define stress are cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin. Under stress, cortisol and epinephrine are released and together raise a person’s blood pressure and circulating blood sugar level. Cortisol by itself also lowers the effectiveness of the immune system.
It was thought that the amount of cortisol released during a stressful situation in women is lesser than in men — this was the basis of theories on why women are more emotional. The fact is there is no consistent difference in cortisol between men and women but there is a large difference in oxytocin.
In a woman, when cortisol and epinephrine rush through the bloodstream in a stressful situation, oxytocin comes into play. It is released from the brain, countering the production of cortisol and epinephrine, and promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions. While men also secrete the hormone oxytocin when they’re stressed, it’s in much smaller amounts, leaving them on the short end of the stick when it comes to stress and hormones.
Stress can have devastating effects on our wellbeing and quality of life and have detrimental effect on our mental health. While we need to investigate more on how societal pressure, biology and other factors lead to differences in each gender’s experience of stress, we should be careful not to create another gender stereotype. Understanding how we are genetically and socially programmed to handle stress and failure can be a good starting point to avoid a life where migraines, frustration and depression are the order of the day.
 Failure is being used as a generally accepted term. The author would use the term setback to describe his own experience(s)
 Eran Shor, Prof Sociology, McGill University (2011)
 Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much? Muriel Niederle And Lise Vesterlund (2007)
 Biobehavioural Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight (Shelley E. Taylor, Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A. R. Gurung, and John A. Updegraff University of California, Los Angeles)
 Gender Differences in Response to Emotional Stress: An Assessment Across Subjective, Behavioral, and Physiological Domains and Relations to Alcohol Craving (Tara M. Chaplin, Kwangik Hong, Keri Bergquist, and Rajita Sinha)
 Raz Levin, Uriel Heresco-Levy, Rachel Bachner-Melman, Salomon Israel, Idan Shalev, Richard P. Ebstein. Association between arginine vasopressin 1a receptor (AVPR1a) promoter region polymorphisms and prepulse inhibition
 Why Failure Hits Girls So Hard, Rachel Simmons, Time, Aug 2015