Background: Sex differences in stress responses may be one mechanism underlying gender differences in depression. We hypothesized that men and women would show different adrenocortical responses to different stressors. In particular, we predicted that women would show greater responses to social rejection stressors, whereas men would demonstrate greater responses to achievement stressors.
Methods: Following a rest session in which they habituated to the laboratory, 50 healthy volunteers (24 men and 26 women, mean age 19.1, SD = 1.13) were randomly assigned to achievement or rejection stress conditions. The achievement condition involved a mathematical and a verbal challenge; the rejection condition involved two social interaction challenges. Self-reported affect and salivary cortisol were measured throughout each stress session (baseline, stress, and poststress periods).
Results: There were no sex differences in mood ratings following the stressors; however, cortisol responses showed the predicted gender by condition by time interaction. Men showed significantly greater cortisol responses to the achievement challenges, but women showed greater cortisol responses to the social rejection challenges.
Conclusions: Women appear more physiologically reactive to social rejection challenges, but men react more to achievement challenges. Women's greater reactivity to rejection stress may contribute to the increased rates of affective disorders in women.