Toll of disturbing news is greater for women, study says

For the Booster Shots Blog

Women exposed to disturbing news stories absorb an emotional blow greater than do men--so much greater that when next exposed to a stressful situation, their stress levels soar, according to a new study. And the women remember the bad news longer.

Those findings emerged from the small but intriguing study published this week in the open-access journal Public Library of Science (PLoS One), and conducted on 60 participants at Montreal’s Center for Studies on Human Stress. Thirty men and 30 women were brought into the lab and asked to read a sheaf of newspaper articles. One group--half women and half men--read excerpts of a dozen neutral news stories. The other group read excerpts of a dozen “negative” news stories--articles that would report violence or misfortune or some event likely to elicit concern.

Just after the reading session, researchers collected samples of subjects’ cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone that makes the heart race, the palms of one’s hands sweaty and the hair on the back of the head stand up. They found little difference between those reading negative news and those reading the neutral stuff. And men’s cortisol levels were just a little higher than women’s.


But the stress of reading bad news became apparent later. Shortly after the participants’ news-reading session, all were put into a stressful situation: with their judges behind a one-way mirror, each participant was asked to present his case for a job interview, and then to do some mental arithmetic under time pressure.

It was then that the reactions of men and women reading negative news diverged: The women on average responded to the experimental challenge with more elevated levels of stress, as measured by the cortisol levels in their saliva, than did the men. Men reading negative news did react with greater stress to the challenge than did men who read neutral news. But for women, the trend was much more pronounced.

There’s good news in all of this though: Some stress--so long as it’s not chronic--has long been known to contribute to the consolidation of memory. And this finding held for those who experienced some stress following their news-reading session: Asked the next day to recall as many of the news stories they could, the bad-news subjects remembered more of them, and the women who had read the negative news remembered the most.

The results, while highly preliminary because the study was so small, may help explain why women appear to be at higher risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than are men. Once traumatized, a woman may be more “stress reactive” to subsequent stressors. And her sharp and enduring memory of the distressing event may continue to cause stress all by itself.

Learn more about PTSD and what researchers have learned about this disabling condition since Sept. 11, 2001:9/11 attacks lead to more study of post-traumatic stress disorder