Tend/Befriend vs. Fight/Flight?

by | Dec 11, 2011 | Health & News

Why do women flock to together under times of stress?

A recent landmark UCLA study helps to answer this question and confirms that friendships between women help deal with stressful situations, coining this new model “tend and befriend”. Scientists now believe that when women come together, such as having a cup of tea with friends or joining for a walk, it actually relieves the pressures of stress.

According to Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and Shelley Taylor, Ph.D, psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, the primary authors of the study, suggest that women respond to stress in a very different way than men. Women, under stress, release a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to foster and maintain friendships with other women (1).

Previously, researchers generally believed that when people experience stress, they triggered a hormonal cascade that revved the body to either fight or flight — either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible. These initial studies were done primarily in men and had been the dominant model of the human responses to stress. This new study by Klein and Taylor has thrown a true curve ball into this thinking!

Drs. Klein and Taylor propose that women respond to stressful situations by protecting their young through nurturing behaviors— the “tend” part of the model—and forming alliances with a larger social group, especially among women–— the “befriend” part of the model. Men, in contrast, tend to stick more to the fight (aggression) and by flight (social withdrawal) when exposed to stress. Thus, researchers suspect that women have a much broader behavioral repertoire than merely “fight or flight”.

What causes this “tend-and-befriend” behavior?

Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which has been highlighted in other articles on this site has been tied to a broad array of social relationships and activities, including peer bonding and sexual activity.(2) This important hormone is released as part of the stress response in a woman, buffering the fight or flight response and encouraging her to tend to her children and flock to other women instead. With this coming together, more oxytocin is released, further reducing stress and promoting a calming effect. According to Klein, this calming response does not occur in men because testosterone reduces the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, on the other hand, enhances it.

By having healthier behaviors to stress, “tend and befriend” may also help explain why women consistently live longer than men (3). Many studies have shown that social ties- and having high levels of oxytocin- reduce the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, heart rate and atherosclerosis, plaque formation in the arteries. Other studies have looked at how well women functioned after death of their spouse, one of the biggest stressors of all. Those women who had a close friend and confidante were much more likely to survive the experience without any new physical ailments or permanent loss of vitality compared to those without a dear friend.

In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life (4). In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

As women, it is essential that we value the time with our partners, as well as that with other women. Finding this balance in times of stress may be challenging, but definitely worth the benefit and oxytocin release!

1) Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., et al. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411-429.
2) Carter, C.S. et al. (1999). The integrative neurobiology of affiliation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
3) Tamres, L. et al. (2002). Sex differences in coping behavior: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 2-30.
4) Harvard.edu (https://www.channing.harvard.edu/nhs/) – “The Nurses’ Health Study”, Harvard University