Tend and Befriend NOT Fight or Flight

Friends girls together on coffee

By Saralee Sky

A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down.

“Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.”

Now the researchers suspect that women have a much larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.”

“In fact,” says Dr. Klein, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the ‘fight or flight’ response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead.” When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.

“This calming response does not occur in men,” says Dr. Klein, “because testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it.”

This information makes so much sense to me! I have, on occasion, been ready to do battle to defend or protect my children, but my more consistent reaction to a stressful situation is to step back from it if it is dangerous, or calmly try to resolve the issue – talk it out. When I am unable to deal with the situation directly, I will pay attention to other people, my children or grandchildren, by baking cookies or caring for them in some other way. I will also start cleaning and attending to minute details to try and manage the overwhelming feelings the stress is causing. I always figured something was WRONG with me, when actually I am simply responding the way women are wired to respond.

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic ‘AHA’ moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. “There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded,” says Dr. Klein. “When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own.”

Going to friends for succor and support is a very healthy way to deal with any sort of stressful situation. It helps us move the stress through our physical and emotional bodies and begin the healing process. Our women friends can give us the emotional support that the men in our lives may be unable to provide.

So go ahead and call that friend of yours you’ve been meaning to call. Meet for tea and have a nice, satisfying chat.

Saralee Sky is an Energy Healer and Animal Communicator. She has over 30 years of experience working with people and now also works with animals. See her ad in this magazine or visit her website at www.earthandskyenergyhealing.com.