Friday, April 21, 2017

T is for Tend-and-Befriend – A Unique Female Response to Stress

Most likely you’ve heard of the “fight of flight” response, the tendency of people to either flee to escape a potential danger or fight to defend themselves and overpower an aggressor to save themselves when threatened in order to ensure their survival.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this response yourself and know of the immediate rush of energy and practically automatic response your body makes possible in highly stressful and potentially dangerous situations.  While it has been assumed that this response is universal to all people, it has come to light that this may not be the case.  Specifically, there appear to be differences in how men and women respond to stress.  It is now known that women respond to potential dangers with a behavior pattern that has been called “tend and befriend.”

It’s no secret that women tend to be more socially focused than men.  This is evident in the coping mechanisms the different genders use when dealing with threats in their life. Stress leads women to focus caring for their offspring and to do things that are likely to help them accomplish this goal. The “tend and befriend” pattern of coping is said to increase survival when women are pregnant, nursing or caring for young children which would prevent them from being able to fight or easily flee.  By befriending other women and forming a network, individual women and their offspring are protected.  This occurs as predators are less likely to attack groups as opposed to individuals.  Additionally, a mix of women who are or aren’t pregnant, nursing or caring for children at a given time ensure that there are always some women who can protect the other members of the group.

Research indicates the gender related stress reactions appear to be predominantly accounted for by physiological responses when confronted by an acute threat.  Both men and women produce oxytocin when facing danger but women release far more.  Additionally, estrogen, produced in greater amount by women, facilitates the effects of oxytocin while androgens, produced in greater amounts in men suppress the effects of oxytocin.  Oxytocin has been demonstrated to decrease blood pressure, anxiety and pain perception and increase a sense of calm as well as mother-infant attachment.  These effects suppress the fight or flight response.  The “tend and befriend” stress response has largely been tied to the greater amount of oxytocin produced by women compared to men.  

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