Tend and Befriend Behavior in Women

Woman comforting an upset womanFor decades, researchers have assumed that the fight or flight response is how human beings react to stress. This response, with its associated increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, is viewed as an adaptation that developed over thousands of years. In other words, if a saber-toothed tiger is attacking, you either spear the sucker or run like crazy. But when researcher Shelley Taylor, PhD, of UCLA noticed that women don’t always respond this way, she reviewed the data from stress research studies and found that most of the subjects (both human and animal) were male. Only 17% of research subjects were female, and they rarely responded to stress with a  fight or flight reaction. Rather than considering this data meaningful, the study excluded female reactions because hormonal fluctuations were presumed to negatively affect the results.

Dr. Taylor observed that women often reach out to others during times of stress, whereas men isolate themselves. Women often call a friend, commiserate with coworkers, or ask others for advice, while men typically prefer to suffer in silence. Even female rodents in stress research studies seek out other rodents, while male rodents under stress prefer to be left alone. Although women demonstrate a fight or flight reaction during stressful incidents that arise suddenly, they tend and befriend soon afterward by nurturing their children or connecting with others. Dr. Taylor described this as an adaptive reaction from an evolutionary standpoint. Historically, women needed to be available to care for their young. Fighting or fleeing during times of stress could have left offspring vulnerable and alone. The ability to form strong social connections and an innate urge to nurture would have served a protective function for the species.

While the instinct to care for offspring provides a sensible explanation for female responses to stress, research on hormones provides an additional explanation for this behavior. During periods of stress, males produce androgens, such as testosterone, along with the stress hormone cortisol. However, females produce oxytocin, the hormone often associated with caregiving and attachment between mother and infant. This creates a feeling of relaxation and reduces fear. Although males also produce oxytocin, testosterone decreases oxytocin levels, so males fail to benefit from its calming effects. Research has shown that when female animals engage in tend and befriend behaviors, even more oxytocin is released that further reduces stress.

Why is this important? Dr. Taylor and colleague Laura Klein, PhD, suspect that the tend and befriend behavior in women, particularly as it pertains to social connections, may explain why women outlive men. Research has shown that individuals with strong social connections have an improved quality of life, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and even a reduced risk of death. Women seek out each other’s comfort when stressed. Finding a friend when you are under stress can facilitate the release of additional oxytocin, which helps create a greater sense of calm. Not only do friends offer many forms of emotional support, but it appears that their comfort provides health benefits as well.

Reference:
Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B.P., Gruenwald, T.L., Gurung, R.A., and Updegraff, J.A. (2000). Behavioral responses to stress: tend and befriend, not fight or flight, Psychological Review, 107, 411-429. Print.

© Copyright 2010 by Gail Post, PhD, therapist in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • grenklet

    August 31st, 2010 at 4:26 AM

    Fight or flight studies and affects on the human mind.

  • Olivia

    August 31st, 2010 at 4:34 AM

    Just another reason to always keep those friends close by.

  • gordon

    August 31st, 2010 at 4:53 AM

    wow,that really is interesting…although its there for everyone to see that women seek out help in difficult times,i never thought it could be related to the very way we react to stress or danger…does this mean that females are more developed when compared to males? ;)

  • Layla F

    August 31st, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    Guys really have a lesson to learn here-sharing your problems with friends is perfectly alright and it can actually help you tide over those problems.Most guys,as far as I know,think it will diminish them being macho and their male ego if they show up in front of a friend as being a broken heart but they need to understand that it is alright to do so and that they can actually get help from that friend of theirs.

  • BrandyV

    March 16th, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Thanks for your thoughts. When looking at the stress response from a physiological perspective, fight, flight and freeze are responses that all humans have capacity for. One’s ability to employ those strategies is in part based on previous attempts in dealing with threat and how successful the strategies were. For example if fight or flight consistently fails, a person’s neurophysiology might stop trying to use them and begin to prefer freeze. Also, hormones are not the only factors that impact post stress strategies for reintegration (such as tend and befriend). The vagus nerves, for example, have a branch that directly impacts our social engagement systems. If this is off line due to current or previous stress or if it wasn’t well developed to begin with (early experiences), it will be unlikely that tend and befriend would be employed easily or at all. All of these things would also be impacted by social conditioning of gender roles, but physiologically, would potentially be the same. See Stephen Porges “The Poly Vagal Theory” and Peter Levine, originator of Somatic Experiencing, “In an Unspoken Voice” if you’re interested in finding out more.

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