Women's Response to Stress: “tend And Befriend” Instead of “fight or Flight”

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The traditional stress induced response of “fight or flight” was always found wanting by many women who felt that their manner of coping with stress does not match either the aggression or escape response. It is also a common observation that many people, not just women, tend to connect with other people and try “talking off” the piled up stress from their minds. Thus, the alternate stress coping mechanism – “tend and befriend” – appear closer to people’s personal experience and is helping them better understand and manage their stress and worries.

The gender difference in stress response had largely remained undiscovered since over ninety percent of all stress research had been done only on men. Researchers often excluded women from studies because their monthly hormonal fluctuations interfered with their statistical conclusions.

More comprehensive research, particularly of last two decades, has revealed that women do have the “fight or flight” reaction that men have – they do show the same immediate hormonal and sympathetic nervous system response to acute stress – but they also have additional responses that frequently override it. During times of danger or threat women have a drive that compels them to protect their young and form alliances. They named it the “Tend and Befriend” response.

“Tend and Befriend” Response – Blame it on Oxytocin!

What they found was that the hormone, oxytocin, plays a key role in this “tend and befriend” process. Oxytocin, the hormone that is prominent during breastfeeding, childbirth and during orgasm, is also released in stressful situations. They suggested that ocytocin has a calming effect and creates a strong desire to nurture, protect and build relationships. Then in response to the nurturing, protecting and relationship building more oxytocin is released which further enhances the feelings of calm and well being. Because of this, caring for others (especially our children) and establishing interpersonal relationships tends to be very satisfying and appealing to women.

As a matter of fact, men also produce ocytocin, but their higher levels of testosterone minimize its effect. On the other hand, estrogen, of which women have abundance, strengthens the effects of oxytocin. Therefore, as a corollary, women actually experience less anxiety in many situations than men do. Oxytocin blocks some of the damaging effects of our stress hormones, which in part, explain women’s overall better health. 

Researcher, Shelley Taylor of UCLA reported in the Psychological Review in 2002that “The male fight-or-flight response is correlated with and characterized by the release of vasopressin. Its effect is enhanced by the presence of testosterone. Although vasopressin is structurally similar to oxytocin, it has been found to support the aggressiveness in males; making fight-or-flight an easier response for them.”

Therefore, women are much more likely than men to seek out and use social support in all types of stressful situations, including health-related concerns, relationship problems and work-related conflicts.

What is so Great about the “Tend and Befriend” Response

What is so important about this “tend and befriend” behavior? You might ask. Dr Taylor and her coworker Dr Laura Klein feel that this behavior might be the reason why women outlive men. Several studies have shown that strong social connections improve the quality of life, reduce blood pressure and risk of death. Company of supportive people can also promote release of oxytocin, generating a greater sense of calm. So the importance of emotional support can not be underestimated.

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