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updated 7/28/2010 9:35:32 AM ET 2010-07-28T13:35:32

You might think that defensiveness — which psychologists describe as avoiding, denying, or repressing information one perceives as threatening — would not be a good thing, and maybe even causes you stress. But a new Canadian study finds men may actually feel better, and less stressed, when they are more defensive. By contrast, women are better off not feeling defensive.

The details
The study of defensiveness and stress was carried out at the Montreal Heart Institute, where researchers evaluated 81 men and 118 women aged 20 to 64 years. In a laboratory setting, each participant was given stressful tasks to perform while being measured for both defensiveness and stress level, the latter by way of factors like heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol (a stress hormone). Turns out that men who were more defensive tended to exhibit fewer signs of stress, compared to less-defensive men. Whereas women showed the opposite response: Those who were more defensive showed more signs of stress, including increased blood pressure and heart rate.

What it means
At face value — if seen purely in terms of defensiveness — the response among the men doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. You would think that defensiveness would equal greater stress in both genders, but it didn't in men, which may have been because they were also being assertive, explains psychologist and principal investigator Bianca D'Antono, PhD. And doing that may have been a de-stressor for them.

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"There appear to be gender differences in how people communicate and handle conflict," says D'Antono. "Men are typically more comfortable with getting their points across and standing up for themselves in a more assertive manner. Women tend to perceive assertiveness as aggressiveness, and use this means of communication less often."

That being the case, the women in the study may have been less comfortable when being defensive. "It's possible that the defensive women were being assertive, which was for them a less-healthy, more stressful way to communicate," says D'Antono. "Whereas the more defensive men were being defensive in an emotionally healthy, assertive manner, so they actually felt less stress than their less-defensive, less-assertive male peers."

Discuss: How do you cope with stress?

To help you better cope with stressful situations, whether related to defensiveness or not, D'Antono offers the following suggestions:

  • Find a de-stressor that works for you: "It's important to manage your stress through activities, such as regular exercise, relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, or tai chi," says D'Antono. "Whichever you enjoy most and provides you with the most benefits. All have been shown to decrease stress levels."
  • Analyze — and then perhaps modify — your behavioral tendencies: Taking a careful look at your own behavior can the first step to reducing your overall stress levels. It's important to examine how you perceive yourself (as good or bad, competent or incompetent), how you perceive the world around you (basically good, basically bad), and how you communicate with others (passively, assertively, aggressively), along with how all these tendencies affect your relationships, mood, and health, explains D'Antono. "Changing some of these tendencies through work on your own, or through therapy, may result in fewer and less-severe stress experiences, and a more fulfilling life."

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