Imagine that you’re walking on a nice tree-lined path on a sunny day. All of a sudden, a bear pops out from behind a tree. What do you do? Fortunately, the brain kicks in and our body responds to these types of threats automatically. If we had to stop and think, “What should I do now?” we’d probably be eaten before we came up with a good plan.
For years, the way the body responds to intense stress has been referred to as “fight or flight”, or more recently, “fight, flight or freeze.” Depending on a person’s biology and past experiences, as well as the nature of the threat, a person will typically respond in one of these ways. They’ll fight the bear, run away from the bear, or stand frozen in fear.
But there’s a twist – despite how common this concept is, the truth is that the studies that identified these as common stress responses were primarily done on men. So while “fight, flight or freeze” is a natural human biological stress response, it’s not necessarily true for everyone.
Women often have a different stress response, which researchers call “tend and befriend”. Think back to the tree-lined path. This time when the bear pops out, imagine that you’re holding a baby. Now what do you do? Your choices are different when you have offspring to protect.
This is the general concept behind “tend and befriend”. Historically, women have had more of a role in the caretaking of young children. Even though today many men and women share these responsibilities, or many women work outside the home and are not the sole caretaker for young children, female stress responses have evolved based on successful stress responses. Essentially, responses to threat that were successfully passed on would have been those that protected both self and offspring.
So, what is “tend and befriend”?
First, let’s talk about “tend”.
The idea behind “tend” is that women are more likely to nurture during time of stress. An interesting study by Repetti showed that fathers who had a stressful workday were more likely to be either irritable or less responsive with their children at the end of the day. On the other hand, mothers who had a stressful workday were more likely to be more responsive, nurturing and connected with their children. On days when women reported their highest level of stress at work, children reported the most connection with their mothers at home. In short, the “tend” response indicates that women sometimes react to stress by being more nurturing or caring than at other times.
What about “befriend”?
Think back to the bear jumping out at you. If the bear sees one tiny little person, he might attack. But if 100 eyes are staring back at him, he may back down. If a predator thinks that others might come to the prey’s rescue, he may be reluctant to attack. That’s the idea behind the concept of “befriend”. Of course, we’re not talking about bears. But the idea is that the more people who surround us, the more likely we are to manage the stressor.
Research shows that under conditions of stress, women are substantially more likely to affiliate with others than men are. The research by Taylor et al calls this “one of the most robust gender differences in adult human behavior.” Essentially, women are more likely to connect with others (often other females) to survive periods of stress. The same is true for young women; adolescent girls lean to their support networks at a higher rate than boys do.
Much of what we have learned about managing stress is based on studies conducted primarily on men. As a result, researchers have missed opportunities to understand the biological stress responses of women.
Implications of this research are huge. Think about the higher rates of acts of aggression committed by men. Could this be linked to a fight, flight or freeze stress response? What about the way some women stay in dangerous or violent relationships? Could this fall under the category of tend and befriend?
Understanding how men and women differ in their stress responses can help us as we interact with both genders. Women and girls may need additional support from peers when faced with a difficult situation, while men and boys may need resources to calm down.