Fight or Flight vs. Tend-and-Befriend – A Unique Female Response to Stress
The fight of flight response is believed to have evolved as a highly adaptive survival mechanism that enables people to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The near-instantaneous response whereby we can quickly assess a situation and know whether fighting off the threat or fleeing from it would provide the best chance of survival is made possible through a carefully orchestrated sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses. The response is characterized by the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine leading to the activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system. For a long time it was believed that this was the universal human stress response first termed "fight or flight" by Walter Cannon in 1932. However, more recently, research has shown that women have very different coping responses to stress, termed “tend and befriend.”
Research Establishing the Flight of Fight Response
It was believed that the fight or flight response was universal because all of the research on the topic produced the same results. Yet, as with other types of research such as that on heart disease, lung cancer and animal models of depression, the reason the same results were found was that the studies worked to limit heterogeneity. This means that they attempted to limit the number of differences that already existed in the participants. This was done so that the observed outcomes weren’t assumed to be the result of the variables of interest when they were actually due to these participant differences.
Differences in participant characteristics can also wash out the effects of the variables of interest. For example, age may play a factor in the response to a certain treatment. If older individuals are less likely to show a response to a medication for depression, the results for a group of subjects of which a significant proportion are older individuals may indicate that this is ineffective in treating depression. Yet if you were to exclude individuals over a certain age, you might have found that the medication was quite effective for treating depression in a younger age group.
There is nothing inherently wrong in limiting heterogeneity in study participants. The problem comes when you try to apply or generalize the results you obtain from a homogeneous group to populations that weren’t included in the study at all. In the research that was conducted exclusively with men, therefore the problem wasn’t in that women weren’t included. The problems was the results of male only or male majority studies were then assumed to be applicable to women as well.
Some studies may be able to be generalized. However, we know that men and women have different hormones and different concentrations of the hormones that they share. There are many pathways affected by hormones in the body. Cardiovascular disease, in particular, and some of the cancers are affected by hormones in particular. Recent research suggests different patterns of disease development and response to treatment for men and women for these disorders (e.g. Dorak, & Karpuzoglu, 2012; Regitz-Zagrosek, et al., 2015).
Clearly, people’s response to stress is largely determined by hormones. Yet, before 1995, research investigating the fight-or-flight response had been done almost exclusively with men. Women made up only 17 percent of all participants in all research conducted on the topic up to that point. Yet the implications of this research was generalized to women as well. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that wide scale research examining the coping response in women was conducted. The findings from these studies showed a very different pattern of coping for women as compared to men.
Stress and Coping Research with Women: Tend and Befriend
As with much research examining factors related to mental and physical health, it was rationalized that limiting stress and coping research participants to men was warranted. This assumption was based on the inconsistencies in the data obtained from female participants due to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. The predominantly male based studies likely caused researchers to fail to detect a type of stress response that is unique to females sooner. This pattern of coping is quite different from what is seen in men and has been termed “tend and befriend” (Taylor et al., 2000).
Taylor and colleagues have made the case that because of differences in parental investment and responsibilities, females may have developed their own stress response in order to protect themselves while they were pregnant, nursing, or caring for children. The male fight-or-flight response would not helpful in increasing chances of survival for females and their children due to the women either being unable to fight or flee during pregnancy, or unable to protect their children if they were nursing or taking care of them. Evolutionarily the tend-and-befriend stress response in females would have been selected for and the fight-or-flight response would have been selected against in female.
The tend-and-befriend response is characterized by tending to young in times of stress and working to befriend others to increase the likelihood of survival when there is a threat. Since a group is more likely than an individual to overcome a threat, this response serves to protect both the woman and her children. Predators are also less likely to attack a group rather than an individual. Basically, the process of women befriending other women is inherently necessary for the protection of offspring since pregnancy and nursing make a female more vulnerable to an outside threat.
The larger the network of women the greater the likelihood that there will be a mix of pregnant and nursing mothers and non-pregnant, non-nursing mothers, as well as mothers with mature children and those without children at a given time. This means that while some women cannot help protect the members of the group there will be others who can serve in this role. Forming a network with other women not only allows the female to have added protection and help with the raising of offspring, increasing the likelihood of their survival, but also serves to secure needed resources such as housing and food.
The research in this area suggests that there is an endogenous stress regulation system for women based on hormonal difference in men and women. Researchers have established that when confronted with a stressor, the sympathetic autonomic nervous system will be activated in both men and women. This will trigger the release of hormones including oxytocin from the hypothalamus, though the amount of oxytocin that becomes available is far greater in women than men. This is effected by differences in hormone production in men and women. Whereas estrogen, produced at a much higher level in women, facilitates oxytocin, androgens, produced at far higher concentrations in men, inhibits oxytocin.
The presence or absence of oxytocin is important in this area because has long been known to counteract the effects of the fight of flight stress response. This occurs through the decrease of blood pressure along with a decrease in cortisol which is a hormone responsible for the fight-or-flight response (McCarthy, 1995). Oxytocin also increases the mother-infant attachment and thus, being confronted with a stressor rarely results in the abandonment of the infant in women. This, in part, occurs because Oxytocin causes an increased sense of relaxation and sedation as well as a reduction in fearfulness and reduced sensitivity to pain.
From the point of view that humans seek not only their own survival but to ensure that they leave surviving offspring to carry on after them when they die, the different stress response processes for men and women make sense. The mechanism in women causes women to behave in ways that ensure not only the survival of themselves but also the offspring they have at the time by ensuring even if pregnant or nursing they have the protection of the group.
It has been theorized that since women are only able to give birth to a small number of children and have a limited reproduction cycle, that they are highly invested in the upbringing of these limited offspring and will not abandon them. In contrast, men are able of having numerous children over the course of their lifetimes. They would therefore, benefit more from responding to threats by fighting or fleeing to ensure their own survival without regard to any children they may have at the time. The degree of parental investment would potentially account for the reason women not only release more oxytocin but are also likely display a more sensitive response to this hormone compared to men.
The Benefits of Tend and Befriend Patterns for Women and their Children Today
Researchers are examining whether the “tend and befriend” coping response to stress may have merit today. Some have theorized it may not have as many practical advantages or be as crucial for the survival of women and children today when we have other means of securing protection such as home security systems and police forces. Yet research suggests that tend and befriend behaviors continue to play an important role in the well-being of women.
One way the “tend and befriend” response to stress benefits women is by protecting them from men in the home environment. Taylor and colleagues have shown for example, that women immigrants who are unable to form a female network are more likely to become victims of domestic abuse than women who are able to form these relationships. In another study, it was found that women who have a high stress burden due to the demand of multiples roles such as caregiver and wage earner who engage in tend and befriend coping are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease than other women. The women who used tend and befriend coping for stress were also less likely to experience heart attacks and those that did had lower morbidity and mortality rates compared to other women Terrill, Garofalo, Soliday, & Craft, 2012).
Research suggests that children are also effected by maternal tend and befriend patterns. Long-term, often permanent benefits for children result from tend and befriend coping in response to stress in mothers. The positive effects of early maternal nurturance and modeling of social affiliation are evident not only at the behavioral level, but also at the biological level. Biological outcomes can include the functioning of genes such that genetic manifestation of disorders such as anxiety, depression and some physiological disorders in children are decreased as the result of tend and befriend stress responses in mothers. These observations show that that maternal tend and befriend coping styles results in not only immediate protection of children, but also offers long-term protection in the form of biological and behavioral responses to stress (Taylor, 2011). Thus, it is clear that patterns of tend and befriend coping continue to be essential for the health and wellbeing of women and their offspring today.
Book Review - The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Nurturing by Shelley E. Taylor
Henry Holt and Co.
Written by Shelley E. Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Nurturing examines the ways which women cope with stress as compared to men. Long assumed that the fight or flight response was the universal way in which all humans being coped with threat, this ground breaking book presents the “tend and befriend” response that is specific to women.
While women’s natural strengths in care-giving and nurturing have long been viewed as secondary to the contributions made to society by men, Taylor elevates these tendencies by showing how they are essential to human survival for all humankind. This book tells the all-important story of human development in a world transformed by technology and associated stressful life experiences from the perspective of women. Taylor shows the important of this topic of the health and well-being of people everywhere.
Cannon, W. B. (1932). The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton
Dorak, M. T., & Karpuzoglu, E. (2012). Gender differences in cancer susceptibility: an inadequately addressed issue. Frontiers in genetics, 3, 268.
Chrousos, G. P., Loriaux, D. L., & Gold, P. W. (2013). Mechanisms of physical and emotional stress (Vol. 245). Springer Science & Business Media. Chicago.
Regitz-Zagrosek, V., Oertelt-Prigione, S., Prescott, E., Franconi, F., Gerdts, E., Foryst-Ludwig, A., & Ladwig, K. H. (2015). Gender in cardiovascular diseases: impact on clinical manifestations, management, and outcomes. European heart journal, ehv598.
Taylor, S. E. (2011). Tend and befriend theory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Collection: Volumes 1 & 2, 32.
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R, & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 441-429.
Terrill, A. L., Garofalo, J. P., Soliday, E., & Craft, R. (2012). Multiple roles and stress burden in women: a conceptual model of heart disease risk. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 17(1), 4-22.
© 2017 Natalie Frank