It all started with a joke among scientists in a lab: When the women scientists experienced stress, they cleaned up the lab and bonded together over coffee. When the men were stressed, they “holed up somewhere on their own.”
That joke lead to a ground-breaking UCLA study that turned five decades of stress research on its head. Most of that research was conducted on men, and you’re no doubt familiar with the results: When we experience stress, our bodies’ hormones tend to trigger either a fight or flight reaction.
But when researchers took a closer look at women, they found a common additional reaction: Tend and Befriend.
Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight; In fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is release as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, she adds, seems to enhance it.
Women’s brains release chemicals that encourage us to make and maintain friendships with other women, and these friendships can actually counteract stress.
When I read the research report, I had one of those, uh huh moments. Uh huh, that makes sense. Uh huh, that’s what I do. Uh huh, that’s what many of my women clients tell me they do, too. When a conflict or other stressful event takes place, we reach out to a friend.
Now I know it’s not just idle chat, not just a quest for commiseration, but an action I may be genetically wired to do in order to take care of myself and live a little longer.