Researchers at UCLA have identified a broad biological and behavioral pattern that explains a key method used by women to cope with stress - and at the same time highlights one of the most basic differences between men's and women's behavior.
This pattern, referred to by UCLA principal investigator Shelley E. Taylor as "tend and befriend," shows that females of many species, including humans, respond to stressful conditions by protecting and nurturing their young (the "tend" response), and by seeking social contact and support from others - especially other females (the "befriend" response).
This "tend-and-befriend" pattern is a sharp contrast to the "fight-or-flight" behavior that has long been considered the principal method for coping with stress by both men and women.
"For decades, psychological research maintained that both men and women rely on fight or flight to cope with stress - meaning that when confronted by stress, individuals either react with aggressive behavior, such as verbal conflict and more drastic actions, or withdraw from the stressful situation," said Taylor.
"We found that men often react to stress with a fight-or-flight response," Taylor said, "but women are more likely to manage their stress with a tend-and-befriend response by nurturing their children or seeking social contact, especially with other women."
The UCLA study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Review of the American Psychological Association, based its findings on analysis of hundreds of biological and behavioral studies of response to stress by thousands of humans and animal subjects.
"The tend-and-befriend method of coping with stress seems to be characteristic of females in many species," Taylor said.
Just as the fight-or-flight response is based on biological changes that occur in response to stress, the UCLA researchers propose that the tend-and-befriend pattern may have a biological basis. In particular, the research team points to the hormone oxytocin as playing a large role in the tend-and-befriend response, in conjunction with sex hormones and the body's natural opioid system.
"Oxytocin has been studied largely for its role in childbirth, but it is also secreted in both men and women as a response to stress," she said.
"Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer, more relaxed, more social and less anxious. In several animal species, oxytocin leads to maternal behavior and to affiliation.
"Men secrete oxytocin too, but the effects of oxytocin seem to be reduced by male hormones, so oxytocin may have reduced effects on men's physiology and behavior under stress. Oxytocin, along with other stress hormones, may play a key factor in reducing females' response to stress."
The UCLA study also found that women are far more likely than men to "befriend" in response to stress - seeking social contact when they are feeling stressed, with befriending methods ranging from talking on the phone with relatives or friends, to such simple social contacts as asking for directions when lost.
"This difference in seeking social support during stressful periods is the principal way men and women differ in their response to stress, and one of the most basic differences in men's and women's behavior," Taylor said.
The different ways that men and women respond to stress may also help researchers understand why men are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of stress, according to Taylor.
"Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension, aggressive behavior, or abuse of alcohol or hard drugs," Taylor said. "Because the tend-and-befriend regulatory system may, in some ways, protect women against stress, this biobehavioral pattern may provide insights into why women live an average of seven and a half years longer than men."
"The tend-and-befriend pattern exhibited by women probably evolved through natural selection," Taylor said. "Thousands of generations ago, fleeing or fighting in stressful situations was not a good option for a female who was pregnant or taking care of offspring, and women who developed and maintained social alliances were better able to care for multiple offspring in stressful times.
The "tending" pattern is especially apparent in research conducted by UCLA psychologist Rena Repetti, who, in one of the studies analyzed in Taylor's research, examined the differences between fathers' and mothers' behaviors with their children after a stressful workday.
"When the typical father in the study came home after a stressful day at work, he responded to stress by wanting to be left alone, enjoying peace and quiet away from the stress of the office; when office-related stress was particularly acute, a typical response would be to react harshly or create conflict with his wife or children," Taylor said. "When the typical mother in the study came home from work bearing stress, she was more likely to cope with her bad day by focusing her attention on nurturing her children.
How did biobehavioral differences in how men and women cope with stress elude researchers until now?
"Until five years ago, many research studies on stress focused on males - either male rodents or human male participants in the laboratory," Taylor said. "Women were largely excluded in stress research because many researchers believed that monthly fluctuations in hormones created stress responses that varied too widely to be considered statistically valid.
"But since 1995, when the federal government mandated broad representation of both men and women in agency-funded medically-relevant research grants, the number of women represented in stress studies has increased substantially. Researchers are now beginning to realize that men and women use different coping mechanisms when dealing with stress."
"This is the first effort to identify a new stress regulatory system since the 1950s, and we are very excited about its ability to explain stress-related behavior that has not fit in traditional approaches to studying stress," Taylor said. "For example, people under stress, especially women, often seek social support from others, but until now, we haven't understood why or what the biological effects of support are. We are much closer now."
In addition to Taylor, the research team includes former UCLA post-doctoral scholars Laura Cousino Klein (now an assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University), Brian P. Lewis (now an assistant professor at Syracuse), and Regan A.R. Gurung, (now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin/Green Bay); and UCLA graduate students Tara L. Gruenewald and John A. Updegraff.
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