The human stress response has been characterized as fight-or-flight by Cannon in 1932 and has been represented as an essential mechanism in the survival process. However, a woman’s responses to stress are not well characterized by fight-or-flight, as research has implicitly assumed, but rather are more typically characterized by a pattern “tend-and-befriend.” Due to the difference in parental investment, female stress responses have selectively evolved to maximize the survival of self and offspring. Women respond to stress by nurturing offspring, exhibiting behaviors that protect them from harm and reduce neuroendocrine responses that may compromise offspring health (the tending pattern), and by befriending, namely, affiliating with social groups to reduce risk.
- Quieting and caring for offspring.
- Get infant out of harm’s way.
- Protect, calm and quiet the child.
- Create social networks to provide resources and protection for self and infant.
- Marshall resources to help.
Women have evolved a stress response to protect themselves while they were pregnant, nursing, or caring for offspring. The male fight-or-flight response would not have been favorable to the survival of women and their offspring because often the women would either be unable to fight or flee during pregnancy, or unable to protect their young if they were nursing or taking care of their young. Evolutionarily, the tend-and-befriend stress response in women would have been selected over the fight-or-flight response in women.
Fight or Flight Studies Primarily Done on Males
Up until 1995, research investigating the fight-or-flight response had been done primarily with males, women only constituting 17% of the participants. Researchers have rationalized this inequality because of an inconsistency in the results obtained from female subjects due to fluctuations in hormone levels during menstruation cycles. Taylor et al. (2000) suggest that the primarily male based research may have caused many to overlook a unique female stress response which they term “tend-and-befriend.
- Groups for defense and aggression.
- Larger, task-specific.
- Increased Status and power, Decreased Intimate bonding.
- Decreased risk in fleeing stress alone.
- Increased risk of being caught fleeing in a group
- Only as fast as the slowest member of the group
Why have stress studies been so heavily based on data from males?
The justification for this bias is similar to the rationale for the exclusion of women from many clinical drugs trials, from research on treatments for major chronic diseases, and from research on illness vulnerabilities. You should understand, scientists love studying constants and hate any variables. Hormones in women fluctuate during their monthly cycle. It would be impossible to coordinate standard hormone levels in women participating in the study.
The rationale has been that, because women have greater cyclical variation in neuroendocrine (hormone, neurotransmitter and neuropeptide) responses (due to the reproductive cycle), their data present a confusing and often uninterpretable pattern of results.
The fight-or-flight response may also be affected by the women’s menstrual cycle, and, as a result, studies concerning the fight-or-flight response in women have been conflicting. However, what if the ambiguous nature of the women stress response is not due solely to neuroendocrine variation but also to the fact that the women stress response is not exclusively, nor even predominantly, fight-or-flight?
Women Respond to Stress with “Tend and Befriend”.
Unlike the fight-or-flight response which allows one to fight against a threat if overcoming the threat is likely or flee if overcoming the threat is unlikely, the tend-and-befriend response is characterized by tending to young in times of stress and befriending those around in times of stress to increase the likelihood of survival. Since a group is more likely than an individual to overcome a threat, this response is a protective mechanism for both the woman and her offspring. Basically, befriending other women is inherently necessary for the protection of offspring since pregnancy and nursing make a woman even more vulnerable to an outside threat. Forming a network not only allows the women to have added protection and help with the raising of offspring, but also serves to secure resources such as housing and food.
Although the threats mentioned are assumed to be external to the woman’s home environment, this network of women also serves to protect the women from the males even within the home environment. Studies even show that women who emigrate and are unable to form a network of women, characteristic of female befriending, are more likely to become victims of abuse than women who are able to form these ties.
Women makes a greater investment initially during pregnancy and nursing and typically plays the primary role in activities designed to bring the offspring to maturity. High maternal focus leads to selection of female stress responses that do not jeopardize the health of the mother and her offspring and that maximize the likelihood of their survival.
Tending,” that is, quieting and caring for offspring and blending into the environment, may be effective for addressing a broad array of threats. In contrast, fight responses on the part of women may put themselves and their offspring in jeopardy, and flight behavior on the part of women may be compromised by pregnancy or the need to care for immature offspring. Thus, alternative behavioral responses are likely to have evolved in women.
The protection of self and offspring is a complex and difficult task in many threatening circumstances, and those who made effective use of the social group would have been more successful against many threats than those who did not. This assumption leads to the prediction that women may selectively “befriend” in response to stress, which maximizes the likelihood that multiple group members will protect both them and their offspring.
The female stress response of tending to offspring and affiliating with a social group is facilitated by the process of “befriending,” which is the creation of networks of associations that provide resources and protection for the women and her offspring under conditions of stress.