Women and Stress

First published on: www.womensvoicesforchange.org

A recent UCLA study1 offers a biological basis for what many women have known intuitively – female friendships are not frivolous add-ons to a busy life, they actually improve one’s emotional and physical well being! Prior to this study, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress a hormonal cascade is triggered that prompts the body to either prepare to fight or flee as fast as possible — an “ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.” In understanding this adaptive response to stress, men and women were treated as equals and their differing responses were not filtered out.

However, new findings suggest that women have a larger behavioral repertoire. According to one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Laura Cousino Klein, it appears that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in women, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages women to tend to children and gather with other women instead. Dr. Klein reports that this “tending or befriending behavior” on the part of women actually leads to a further increase in oxytocin, producing an even greater calming effect. This does not occur in men as males produce testosterone when stressed which actually depletes the impact of oxytocin. Estrogen in contrast, enhances it.

The science makes evolutionary as well as logical sense. Taking care of children, finding safety in numbers and seeking support is an adaptive response when threatened. But it does not require a saber-toothed tiger to generate the anxiety that prompts (and can be calmed) by friendship. Everyday tensions and threats to one’s well being may be attenuated by attending to ones “social” health. Studies have shown that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. People who obtain social support are less depressed and live longer. People coming together normalize feared states, problem-solve and gain confidence.

So why do we often feel so guilty when making time for our friends?

Much has been written about the dark side of women’s relationships with women – the destructive forces of Queen Bees, wanna-bees, and mean girls. While it is true that competition and undermining behavior may surface in any interaction, the day to day life-enrichment of women supporting women grabs fewer headlines. It’s easy to minimize or trivialize the positive effects of “processing” one’s experience, yet, as sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen has indicated, women build relationships and gain greater calm through this review (in ways that men often don’t understand!). A whole body of psychological study exists examining self-in–relation. Women grow and define themselves in relation to others. That’s in relation – not in the service of others! Too often we prioritize work, family and endless lists, denying the indulgent pleasure of some conversation and a curative giggle (or cry). Whatever slivers of time remain we often devote to exercise or diet, but consider this: walking and talking with friends not only exercises your body, it truly builds antibodies to stress. Ask yourself or your girlfriends, what was the last event, positive or negative, that was better alone?

1. Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Behaviorial Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychol Rev, 107(3):41-429