“Fight or flight” may be seen as the traditional choice when faced with stress, but your real response may depend on your gender.
Many of us experience similar stressors in our lives — tight work deadlines, screaming kids, anemic bank balances — but we differ in how we react to the ensuing stress. The response, experts now say, may very well depend on our gender.
Recent research shows that the “fight or flight” concept that we have for decades applied to stress response appears to apply to men much more than to women, whom, experts say, opt to reach out and nurture each other — in short, to “tend and befriend” — during stressful times.
“The dominant metaphor, ‘fight or flight,’ represents the threatening social landscape as a solitary kill-or-be-killed world,” notes psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, in her book The Tending Instinct: Women, Men and the Biology of Our Relationships (Henry Holt and Company, 2002). Taylor, a professor at UCLA who, along with her colleagues, developed the “tend and befriend” theory of stress response, challenges the notion that the individualistic, aggressive “fight or flight” model applies to all of us, observing that “the human response to stress is characterized at least as much by tending to and befriending others, a pattern that is especially true of women.”
So how did we labor under this misapprehension for so long? Amazingly, Taylor points out, “prior to the mid-1990s, only about 17 percent of the participants in studies of biological responses to stress were women.”
Not surprisingly, seeking out social support and nurturing others is not only a great form of stress relief, it’s also as vital to our health and well-being as the food we eat, how much sleep we get, and whether or not we smoke. “The social world is undeniably protective,” observes Taylor. “Ties with family and close friends are protective of physical health … [while] social isolation increases the risk for all causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents or suicide.”
The Tending Brain
So why are women, on average, inclined to react to stress so differently from men? According to Regan Gurung, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and human development at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and one of Taylor’s colleagues who helped develop the “tend and befriend” model of stress response, it’s a matter of evolution and hard-wiring.
“The ‘fight or flight’ model is based on the very simple assumption that our bodies prepare us for action to either fight with a foe or to run away from it,” Gurung explains. “However, from an evolutionary standpoint, women evolved as caregivers; applying the same ‘fight or flight’ model, if women fight and lose, then they are leaving an infant behind. By the same token, if they flee, it’s a lot harder to flee if you are carrying an infant and you’re not going to leave the infant behind.”
Instead of the fight or flight response, Taylor, Gurung and their colleagues realized, women are apt to either tend infants or befriend others — specifically other women — in order to ensure their survival and the survival of their genes. On a biological level, says Gurung, women have a whole neurochemistry and neurocircuitry that is different from men and that supports this “tend and befriend” model of stress response.
“From a neurocircuitry perspective, for example, women naturally have more oxytocin than men do,” he says. “Oxytocin serves a variety of functions, including playing a big role in pregnancy and lactation — it’s literally like a shot of pain relief. That’s where the tending comes in; the moment you tend your infant, you are reaping the benefits of this neurocircuitry.”
And, notes Taylor, calming hormones like oxytocin also trigger women to befriend other women. “When female animals are given an injection of oxytocin, for example, they behave as if a social switch has been turned on,” she writes. “They seek out more social contact with their friends and relatives.”
And, not only do females have more naturally occurring oxytocin, Taylor adds, but female hormones such as estrogen actually enhance the relaxing effects of oxytocin, while male hormones like testosterone may work against them.
Men Can Do It, Too — and Reap the Benefits
Despite all this evolutionary and biological evidence, Gurung says, men can also tend and befriend. “Although, on average, women show this tending and befriending significantly more often,” he notes, “that doesn’t preclude men from doing it.”
Few of us these days are stressed out by confrontations with the kinds of vicious predators our ancestors faced, but the types of stressors we encounter are both varied and real, says Gurung. In order to benefit from the “tend and befriend” approach, he says, you don’t even have to look at it as a male-female thing: “Simply look at the strategies that help cope with stress. Befriending helps to cope with stress, so do more of it if you aren’t already.”
In order to cultivate the friendships that will offer support during stressful times, men should try to get over the shame of reaching out to others, says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, and author of Fit to Live: The 5-Point Plan to Become Lean, Strong and Fearless for Life (Rodale, 2007). “Men tend to feel more comfortable reaching out if it’s a formalized relationship, like a mentoring relationship in business,” she says. In reality, all of us — women and men — contain within ourselves the ability to be both warriors and nurturers. The key is being comfortable enough to embrace both roles. “We should encourage men to drop the machismo thing and say that it’s cool to be able to call someone else up,” Peeke says.
“In real life,” Gurung agrees, “spending more time with friends and loved ones, and especially taking time to ‘tend’/enjoy children, would seem to have strong stress-relief potential. When stressed, searching out friends to be with and share issues or problems is key, as is building and maintaining friendships so that you do have resources when needed.”
So why isn’t tending and befriending more widespread, both on the part of men and women? Part of the problem is that the instinct toward caregiving is often given short shrift by the scientific community, notes Taylor. “We . . . need to recognize that tending is intrinsic to our nature, at least as vital as the selfishness and aggression that more commonly shape its portrait,” she explains. “When the image we form is of an individualistic person who acts primarily with selfish self-interest, we cannot help but be affected.”
And we cannot understate the importance of connectedness to our general health and well-being, adds Taylor: “Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have. When we erode our social and emotional ties, we pay for it long into the future. When we invest in them instead, we reap the benefits for generations to come.”