When Stress and Genitals Collide

New science shows that stress increases risk-taking in men and decreases risk-taking in women. What does this have to do with your workout? Read on to find out.

Does stress affect men and women differently? The answer may surprise you. The journal Current Directions in Psychological Science recently published an article that sought to answer this question by reviewing the literature on stress. Several studies have examined risk-taking under stress. They generally subjected participants to a stressor like immersing their hands in very cold water. Then researchers measured the risk-taking of participants by playing gambling games with real payouts.

Across the board, reactions to stress showed a very predictable gender difference. Stress increases risk-taking in men and decreases risk-taking in women. And the difference isn’t small – it’s profound. As the researchers dealt out more and more stress, the men became increasingly gung-ho, and the women became increasingly timid. In some studies, researchers applied stress by directly administering cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced in response to exercise, so these findings could have direct applications to training.

How can you apply this knowledge to your training? First, nothing says you aren’t an exception. When placed under stress you may become an extremely timid man or a dangerously risky woman. But if you’re not an exception – and statistically, most of us aren’t – then keep these ideas in mind while training:

  • Men, as your workout progresses and cortisol levels rise, you may be inclined to take risks you shouldn’t, like deadlifting a new personal record on a dare with no warm-up. Don’t do that.
  • Women, for you the opposite may be true. As fatigue sets in you may be inclined to put less weight on the bar than you actually need.

No rule is applicable to everyone simply because of gender. Your risk-taking under stress could vary from your peers. But knowing what science shows about the most common behaviors of men and women can help you figure out whether you’re acting risky or playing it safe after stress kicks in.


1. Mara Mather and Nichole Lightfall. Risk and Reward are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012. 21:36. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429452

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