Study on Friendship Among Women

Published under: Women

By: Gale Berkowitz

A land­mark UCLA study sug­gests friend­ships between women are spe­cial. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumul­tuous inner world, fill the emo­tional gaps in our mar­riage, and help us remem­ber who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Sci­en­tists now sus­pect that hang­ing out with our friends can actu­ally coun­ter­act the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us expe­ri­ence on a daily basis. The UCLA study sug­gest that women respond to stress with a cas­cade of brain chem­i­cals that cause us to make and main­tain friend­ships with other women.

It’s a stun­ning find that has turned five decades of stress research — most of it on men — upside down. Until this study was pub­lished, sci­en­tists gen­er­ally believed that when peo­ple expe­ri­ence stress, they trig­ger a hor­monal cas­cade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as pos­si­ble, explains Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., now an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Biobe­hav­ioral Health at Penn State Uni­ver­sity and one of the study’s authors. It’s an ancient sur­vival mech­a­nism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.

Now the researchers sus­pect that women have a larger behav­ioral reper­toire than just fight or flight; In fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the hor­mone oxy­tocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encour­ages her to tend chil­dren and gather with other women instead. When she actu­ally engages in this tend­ing or befriend­ing, stud­ies sug­gest that more oxy­tocin is released, which fur­ther coun­ters stress and pro­duces a calm­ing effect. This calm­ing response does not occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testos­terone — - which men pro­duce in high lev­els when they’re under stress — - seems to reduce the effects of oxy­tocin. Estro­gen, she adds, seems to enhance it.

The dis­cov­ery that women respond to stress dif­fer­ently than men was made in a clas­sic “aha” moment shared by two women sci­en­tists who were talk­ing one day in a lab at UCLA. There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had cof­fee, and bonded, says Dr. Klein. When the men were stressed, they holed up some­where on their own.

I com­mented one day to fel­low researcher Shel­ley Tay­lor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.”

The women cleared their sched­ules and started meet­ing with one sci­en­tist after another from var­i­ous research spe­cial­ties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Tay­lor dis­cov­ered that by not includ­ing women in stress research, sci­en­tists had made a huge mis­take: The fact that women respond to stress dif­fer­ently than men has sig­nif­i­cant impli­ca­tions for our health.

It may take some time for new stud­ies to reveal all the ways that oxy­tocin encour­ages us to care for chil­dren and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion devel­oped by Drs. Klein and Tay­lor may explain why women con­sis­tently out­live men.

Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of dis­ease by low­er­ing blood pres­sure, heart rate and cho­les­terol. There’s no doubt, says Dr. Klein, that friends are help­ing us live longer.

In one study, for exam­ple, researchers found that peo­ple who had no friends increase their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also help­ing us live bet­ter. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Har­vard Med­ical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop phys­i­cal impair­ments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be lead­ing a joy­ful life. In fact, the results were so sig­nif­i­cant, the researchers con­cluded, that not hav­ing close friends or con­fi­dants was a detri­men­tal to your health as smok­ing or car­ry­ing extra weight!

And that’s not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women func­tioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stres­sor of all, those women who had a close friend and con­fi­dant were more likely to sur­vive the expe­ri­ence with­out any new phys­i­cal impair­ments or per­ma­nent loss of vital­ity. Those with­out friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swal­low up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a ques­tion that also trou­bles researcher Ruthellen Jos­sel­son, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Plea­sure and Per­ils of Girls’ and Women’s Friend­ships (Three Rivers Press, 1998).

Every time we get overly busy with work and fam­ily, the first thing we do is let go of friend­ships with other women, explains Dr. Jos­sel­son. We push them right to the back burner. That’s really a mis­take because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nur­ture one another. And we need to have unpres­sured space in which we can do the spe­cial kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women.

It’s a very heal­ing experience.

Source: Tay­lor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Grue­newald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Upde­graff, J. A. (2000). “Female Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psy­cho­log­i­cal Review, 107(3), 41–429.

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