Friday, June 24, 2005

Make New Friends and Keep the Old

It's the age-old debate: Women complain that men talk too little. Men complain that women talk too much. Interestingly, recent research shows that women's tendency to use communication to relieve stress actually may be saving their lives. Their secret: Having a network of friends to help release the stresses of life. "Women's friendships are vital to mental health," says Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), whose 2000 landmark study on women's friendships identified physical measures associated with stress management. We all know about stress and how damaging it can be to our health. Until this study, it was generally believed that the universal response to stress was either "fight or flight." That is, either confront the enemy or run away from it -- whether it is a sabre-toothed tiger, a cranky boss or someone who cuts in front of you in line. Now, however, Dr. Taylor and Laura Cousin Klein, PhD, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University, have discovered something quite significant in their research about stress and gender differences. Until now, most studies about stress have focused on the male response -- but the female response to stress is different. Dr. Klein realized that when things were stressful in her lab (at UCLA), the women came in, cleaned, had coffee and talked. The men, however, holed up alone somewhere away from everyone else. Drs. Taylor and Klein hypothesized that while "fight or flight" might be the initial physiological response in both men and women, the behavioral response in women is actually "tend and befriend." Tending involves nurturing to protect oneself and one's offspring, thus reducing stress. Befriending involves creating and maintaining social networks to aid the process of tending. The reason for this behavior is a hormone called oxytocin. The behavior can not be written off as solely cultural, but rather, as physiological. Oxytocin is part of a complex "biobehavioral signaling system" and seems to be one key to explaining why women form support groups of all kinds. It is best known as a hormone that prompts labor and milk production and is partially responsible for signaling a woman to nurture her children as well as to seek out other women for help and protection. It has a calming effect and is released during periods of stress. Oxytocin's release during stressful moments means that a woman's first response may be to call a friend or relative to help her resolve whatever problems are besetting her. However, oxytocin doesn't discriminate by gender. When a man is under stress, he too produces the hormone, but most of its beneficial effects are suppressed by androgens (male hormones such as testosterone). The result is that when stuck in traffic, for example, a woman might call her mother, sister or best friend... while most men want to start cursing or clenching their fists. We already know that stress is a killer. In a Harvard Medical School Health Study, it was found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical ailments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. The researchers concluded that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to one's health as smoking and extra weight. The next time your spouse tells you that you spend too much time with your friends or you talk too much, simply smile and say, "Thanks for noticing."

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