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Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends

“I’ve just got to talk to my girlfriends or I’ll go nuts.” Most women know the feeling. Turns out, hormones may be behind this feeling—and the bonding behavior it triggers.

According to preliminary research, women and men respond differently to stress, both hormonally and behaviorally. Studies show that women are more likely to exhibit a tend-and-befriend response, rather than a fight-or-flight reaction.

Laura Klein, PhD, Shelley Taylor and colleagues first developed the tend-and-befriend concept 6 years ago, as a result of a study conducted in the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study showed that stress in women triggered the release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces the desire to fight or flee and encourages bonding by tending to family and friends. As women care for and reach out to others, more oxytocin is released, producing an even stronger calming effect. Male hormones, however, do not encourage bonding. In men, stress stimulates high levels of testosterone, dampening the effects of oxytocin and encouraging men to fight or flee. Klein and Taylor’s study was published in the Psychological Review (2000; [107] 3, 411–29).

In a more recent study, researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, examined differences in the relationships among testosterone, cortisol and hormone behavior in college-age competitive rowers. Participants included both men and women. In response to the stress of competition, investigators found, women were more likely to “tend and befriend,” whereas men were more likely to “fight or flee.” The study appeared in Psychoneuroendocrinology (2005; [30] 1, 58–71).

Given these findings, is it possible that stress management strategies will be more effective if based on individual or gender characteristics? The clear differences in stress responses between men and women and even within the fight-or-flight response continue to puzzle scientists. It is critical that future research look at both men and women, since medications and other remedies are based on study results, and most past research has been conducted on men.

Also of note: Numerous studies have documented the health benefits of social support and nurturing relationships. The fact that women tend to seek out social support and are hormonally induced to do so may explain why they enjoy greater longevity than men.

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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