When listening to women speaking it’s easy to see the therapeutic value of supportive female interaction. Sharing deeply with an open heart and airing gripes or debating the condition of the world is a most functional way of unbundling a trauma or dilemma. Women very easily share incidents, opinions and events from their lives and in this way, let off steam. All over the world, they use each other’s company to de-stress and find comfort tending to share their issues in a more intimate manner than men.
Psychologists call this behaviour ‘tend-and-befriend’ and differentiate this response to stress from the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Fight-or-flight refers to response behaviour people exhibit when confronted with stress which is typically either aggressive (verbal or physical) or includes withdrawing or fleeing.
This ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response held its ground until two female researchers discovered that stress research almost always used men in their study groups and, in fact, women have a completely different way of responding to stress. American psychology professor Shelley E Taylor shows that women manage stress with the more constructive “tend-and-befriend” response as described above. Female species respond to stress by protecting and nurturing their young (tending) and seeking social contact and support from other females (befriending). Taylor’s research shows that hormones may be responsible for this different reaction. Stressed males produce androgens like testosterone in addition to stress hormones like cortisol. Animal studies suggest that females produce oxytocin, which produces a feeling of relaxation, reduces fear, and decreases some components of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
Befriending methods also include speaking on the phone with friends or asking for directions when lost. “Most often”, says Taylor, “when men come home after a particularly stressful day they will either create conflict with their partner or children or they will want to be left alone”. Women, on the other hand might deal with stress by focusing their attention on nurturing their children.
These differences may also explain why men are more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Men are more likely to develop stress-related disorders including hypertension, aggressive behaviour, or abuse of alcohol or hard drugs. “Because the ‘tend-and-befriend’ regulatory system may, in some ways, protect women against stress, this bio behavioural pattern may provide insights into why women live an average of seven and a half years longer than men.” Taylor says. She also explains that this pattern probably evolved through natural selection, “fleeing or fighting in stressful situations was not a good option for a female who was pregnant or taking care of offspring, and women who developed and maintained social alliances were better able to care for multiple offspring in stressful times.”
This is just another reason to round up a friend and head for the Spa.