Tend and Befriend: A Particularly Female Response to Stress and Threats

by | Apr 20, 2023

We’ve all learned about the “fight or flight response”: In response to an event perceived as stressful or frightening, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered, which primes our bodies to fight or flee. We experience increased heart rate and respiration, increased blood flow to our muscles and brain, reduced blood flow to our digestive system, and our brains become hyper-aware of threats.

The Tend and Befriend Response

But there’s a second response to stress or threats that is common in females: “Tend and befriend.” First proposed by Shelley Taylor and her team at UCLA, the tend and befriend response involves nurturing activities designed to protect offspring from threats and seeking out others for support. According to Dr. Taylor, ”Fight or flight is basically a response that doesn’t involve the hands-on protection of others. ‘But females needed to protect their young, and affiliating with a social group afforded more protection for females with one or more young children.”

The tend and befriend response was discovered after a researcher noted that stress response experiments at their lab were only performed on male rats. When the researchers performed the same experiments with female rats, they found a different response. Other experiments on other mammals, including humans, also found this different response, which they dubbed “tend and befriend.”

Hormones Explain the Difference in Response

The different responses to threats by gender are likely the result of hormones. According to Dr. Taylor, “when close relationships are threatened . . . a rise in plasma oxytocin occurs, a biological marker that may signal a need for affiliation: Oxytocin prompts affiliative behavior in response to stress, in conjunction with the opioid system.” And females usually have higher levels of oxytocin than males, which explains why tend and befriend is primarily a female response. And, as noted by the New York Times, this gender difference in stress reaction “may help explain why women are less vulnerable than men to stress-related illnesses like hypertension and alcohol and drug abuse.”

1 Comment

  1. Love this! More evidence that the future is female LOL. And that we should be including females in all medical studies more often!


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