Patriarchy and stress

What’s patriarchy got to do with stress? Well, turns out quite a lot and not only in the way you might expect.

When the Madame Papillon team was first developing the idea of the project, we were looking at why 2/3 of people who burn out are women and we didn’t have much trouble finding possible explanations.

We talked about the impact of capitalism undervaluing childcare and other work more traditionally associated with women at the same time as demanding productivity over all other elements of being human; we pointed to the internalised pressure many women put on themselves to be perfect and avoid asking others for help; we looked at the inequality in how men and women are treated, from salary disparities to parental leave differences. In short there are many reasons, and they are all nourished by our capitalist and patriarchal society.

All these elements shine a light on the female burnout experience but one thing I hadn’t until a couple of days ago considered was the impact of the patriarchy on our understanding of stress itself. The impact of using men rather than women as subjects of scientific studies and neglecting to uncover, until this century, the more female response to stress than the commonly referenced fight, flight or freeze.

So what happened a couple of days ago? Well, I was listening to one of my favourite burnout podcasts Fried and the host, Cait Donovan mentioned the stress response theory of tend and befriend.

After a little digging, I found that it was only in 2020 that this theory was developed by Shelley Taylor of the University of California. The basic idea is that as well as the aggressive response of fighting the (perceived) attacker, or running for the hills away from (perceived) danger, or playing dead, we have other responses like tending to our defenceless offspring and seeking connection with others to strengthen community and achieve more safety in numbers.

This is attributed more to females because it is linked to oxytocin, a hormone with an important role in the female reproductive system.

Another interesting element is that short term stressors may provoke more fight-flight responses whereas chronic stress, which leads to burnout, may trigger needs to find solace in others.

This is certainly in line with what we are trying to do with Madame Papillon.

Our aim is to provide the resources and space to tend to your own needs and befriend other women who have also experienced burnout to better cope with the stress in your life.

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