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. A landmark UCLA study suggests 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  sabre-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 increased 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 as 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 confidante 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 Pleasures 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 backburner. That's really a mistake; 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

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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