A previous blog on the different stress response of men and women said that men have a rise in adrenalin when they get stressed whereas women have a rise in cortisol. Raising adrenalin too often leads to heart attacks, raising cortisol levels too much leads to depression. This blog is looking at why the female brain has this predisposition to depression – and there are at least 4 differences between the male and female brain that lead to women being more prone to depression than men.
In the video clip in the linked blog, Mark Gungor remarked that women have more RAM in their brains. Women remember much more detail of an event and are much more sensitive emotionally. This originates in their brain. The parts of the brain to do with memory, the hippocampus, is larger and more active in the women. Also the worry centre, the anterior cingulate gyrus, are more active. This means that women worry more, they can remember things in great detail, and can spend a lot of time going over negative thoughts and feelings, especially if they are to do with relationships. They can agonise over an encounter with someone if they felt it did not go very well. Men simply do not worry in the same way. Hence the fact that about twice as many women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as men.
With the rise in cortisol due to stress, if this goes on for too long, it leads to lowering of serotonin levels in the brain, which will also lead to depression and mood disorders. The linked article from Scientific American also refers to the finding that men make 52% more serotonin than women do, so by this fact alone women are more prone to depression than men.
Another piece of the jigsaw lies in the difference in blood flow in the female and male brain. The work of the researcher Ruben Gur has shown that the blood flow in the brain is slower in men and when they sleep, their brain turns off much more effectively than women’s do. The female brain is more highly networked and interconnected; it is always whirring, hence why females really can multi-task in a way that most men cannot. But it also means that the female brain never really sleeps so women, particularly mothers, tend not to sleep as well as men, making them more prone to tiredness which leads to feeling low.
Finally there is the difference in what happens to men and women when they face competitive stress. As talked about in the blog on why men are at the top of any profession. Briefly, when men compete, they get a surge in testosterone and dopamine levels. If they win, their testosterone rises even higher. If they lose they get depressed. However, men do thrive in competitive situations. Women on the other hand also experience a rise in testosterone in a competitive situation, but this is accompanied by a rise in cortisol which, after a while, makes women feel anxious. Winning or losing is less important to females; what tends to be of more importance is if they performed well. And so generally women do not thrive in competition; it makes them feel too anxious.
So there we are; 4 different reasons; brain structure leads women to remember more, to worry more or, with more to remember, there is more to worry about. Stress raises cortisol in women which makes us feel anxious and lowers serotonin levels in the brain. Our very active minds never switch off, so getting a good night’s sleep regularly is more of a challenge for females. And finally competition, whether in the workplace, training, or in sports also raises cortisol. In truth, of course, we all live on a sliding scale; some women have a more female brain than others and so it is with the men. So of course not every woman is prone to depression and not every man is inured to it. But the majority fall somewhere in the definite male or female brain, so understanding why women are more anxious about things helps us if we are women. In the midst of a good worrying session, we can say to ourselves, ‘It is only my anterior cingulate gyrus being overactive’. And, men, if your partner is a real worry wart and seems to get depressed about things that don’t bother you, then give her a nice hug and just let her natter her woes away. Do try not to make it too obvious you have retreated to your nothing box….