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Relationships and Stress: How women and men deal with stress differently

 Relationships and Stress

When it comes to handling stress, men and women react very differently and understanding these differences can make it easier to handle our relationships and stress. 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. Women, it seems, opt to reach out and nurture each other — in short, to “tend and befriend” — during stressful times.

Tend and Befriend

An influential study published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review by Shelly E. Taylor, PhD, a distinguished professor in the department of psychology at UCLA reported:

“The dominant metaphor, ‘fight or flight,’ represents the threatening social landscape as a solitary kill-or-be-killed world.  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.  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…tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.”

Why did it take us so long to spot this? Amazingly it seems that prior to the mid-1990s, only about 17 percent of the participants in studies of biological responses to stress were women!T he driving force behind “tend and befriend” is the hormone oxytocin. Women naturally have more oxytocin than men do and 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 the oxytocin circuitry in the brain.

The role of Oxytocin

Also, the study notes, 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. They seek out more social contact with their friends and relatives”.

Relationships and Stress: Can men “tend and befriend” too?

Although women show this tending and befriending significantly more often than men do, that doesn’t preclude men from doing it. We live in different times in terms of the threats we face each day – not so many vicious predators like our ancestors faced, but the types of stressors we encounter are both varied and real. Researchers say that 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.”

And it can be much more useful than either running away or bottling it up.

Need some advice and support?

If you are experiencing difficulties in your relationship and would like to talk it over either on your own or as a couple, in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

Or read these related blogs: All You Need to Know about Relationships, Couples Counselling and Listening Skills, Couples Counselling and Communication Skills