Tend and Befriend
[This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of PAGER's newsletter, Reflux Digest]
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles have coined a new term for the way that women cope with many types of stress. Rather than flee or fight, women are more likely to gather the flock and stick together to help each other. The new model is allowing researchers to go back and look at the many studies that show different stress reactions in males and females, human and animal. Often the results make perfect sense when you view the female behavior as a functional ‘tend and befriend’ reaction rather than a non-functioning ‘flight or fight’ reaction. The need to tend and befriend is particularly strong when health concerns are causing the stress.
In terms of the fight response, while male aggression appears to be regulated by androgen hormones, such as testosterone, and linked to sympathetic reactivity and hostility, female aggression isn't. Instead, female aggression appears to be more cerebral in nature--moderated by social circumstances, learning, culture and the situation--and in animals "confined to situations requiring defense," write the researchers. [Mama Tigers don’t just attack, they consciously decide to do so. - Editor.]
In terms of flight, fleeing too readily at any sign of danger would put a female's offspring at risk, a response that might reduce her reproductive success in evolutionary terms. Consistent with this idea, studies in rats suggest there may be a physiological response to stress that inhibits flight. This response is the release of the hormone oxytocin, which enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness and decreases the stress responses typical to the fight-or-flight response.
So rather than fight or flee, Taylor and her colleagues posit, women often tend and befriend, an idea supported by several lines of research in humans and other animals. Some of the more intriguing work, says Taylor, comes out of Michael Meaney's laboratory at McGill University. He and his colleagues remove rat pups from their nest for brief periods--a stressful situation for pups and mothers--and then return them to the nest and watch what happens. The mothers immediately move to nurture and soothe their pups by licking, grooming and nursing them. This kind of tending response stimulates the growth of the pups' stress-regulatory system.
A summary of this new theory is available at