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 released 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
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."
The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was
made in a classic "aha!" moment shared by two women scientists who
were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. "There was this joke that
when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in,
cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded", says Dr. Klein.
men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own.
I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly
90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from
my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto
something." The women cleared their schedules and started meeting
with one scientist after another from various research specialties.
Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including
women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake: The
fact that women respond to stress differently than men has
significant implications for our health.
It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that
oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other
women, but the "tend and befriend" notion developed by Drs. Klein
and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men.
Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of
disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.
"There's no doubt," says Dr. Klein, "that friends are helping us
live." 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. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers
concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as
detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!
And that's not all! When the researchers looked at how well the
women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that
even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who
had a close friend confidante were more likely to survive the
experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of
vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.
Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much
of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years
to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That's
a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D.,
co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls and
Women's Friendships (Three Rivers Press, 1998). "Every time we get
overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of
friendships with other women," explains Dr. Josselson. "We push
them right to the back burner. That's really a mistake because women
are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another.
And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special
kind of talk that women do when they're with other women It's a very healing experience."
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T.
L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Female Responses to Stress:
Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight
Causes Robert Sward Supports
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