When it comes to stress, are we all equal? Sonia Lupien, full professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Université de Montréal and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, assumed so for a long time—that is, until she began to explore stress in women and saw the astonishing results. “Twenty years ago, I studied only male subjects, who are more hormonally stable,” explains Lupien. “My colleagues and I were convinced that our observations also applied to women.” But in early 2000, citing ethical grounds, funding agencies began to require that researchers include women in their projects. “I really hoped that I wouldn’t find any difference between stress in women and men so I wouldn’t have to deal with female hormones,” she admits. The psychoneuroendocrinologist’s early findings showed that women were less physiologically reactive to stress than men but had much higher basal stress levels. “Basal stress is the stress you carry with you. After an argument with a spouse, for example,” says Lupien. “Women are constantly producing more stress hormones because they see stressors everywhere. They also tend to define themselves by the stress they experience.”
Lupien took the project one step further by studying whether gender, like sexual orientation or social roles, could also influence stress. With PhD student Robert-Paul Juster, she surveyed the interactions between sex, gender and stress in workers. The results showed that male and female employees who took on roles that were considered masculine (e.g. assertiveness, competiveness) had higher levels of stress hormones. Sexual orientation also impacts stress: the stress patterns of gay men are similar to those of heterosexual women and those of lesbians are comparable to straight men’s. Finally, coming out is beneficial to an individual’s mental health since it reduces stress hormones and curbs the symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout.
Today, psychologists rely on these observations to guide their therapies. For Sonia Lupien, who was voted among the Top 10 Canadians Who Make a Difference by MacLean’s magazine in 2003, transferring knowledge to professionals and the general public is of utmost importance: “I got up one morning and decided to share my results on a website to which my students contribute on a voluntary basis.” There, she discusses the various aspects of stress, including the stress associated with career choice among grade 11 students. “Teenagers have to stop stressing about what they want to do. Above all, their choices should be guided by their passions, and then life will direct them toward a career that will merge their talents and passions,” affirms Lupien. Indeed, she only discovered her passion for stress research and academia in the second year of her PhD in neuroscience.