It may not come as a surprise to hear that men and women experience and express stress differently. While the majority of stress research in the last 50 years has been conducted on men, a recent study done on women’s friendships in the context of stress management has had “stunning” implications and has turned much of that research “upside down”. The following is a summary of an article by Gale Berkowitz, titled “UCLA Study on Friendship Among Women: An alternative to fight or flight” which outlines the fascinating findings of this study.
As a woman, I found this study especially interesting however not surprising. For you men reading this: Just because your physiology doesn’t utilize oxytocin in the same fashion as women does not mean you are stuck. As you read this summary, consider these questions:
· What obstacles or excuses do you create preventing close ties with others?
· How has isolating in the face of stress affected you?
· How willing are you to include something other than fight or flight in to your response to stress?
The study was a result of what was initially a joke made between two female scientists at the university, followed by their identification that approximately 90% of stress research to date had been conducted on men. The “joke” was that when the women scientists were stressed, they would come in to the lab, clean, make coffee, and bond with one another. When the male scientists were stressed, they would “hole up” somewhere and isolate themselves. While this was a casual joke among colleagues, the consideration of its truth combined with the realization that so little research had been done on women’s experience of stress had implications too large and fascinating to ignore.
This study recognizes that women’s friendships have unique and special qualities. These relationships impact women’s identities both present and future, they sooth inner turmoil, they can meet needs not being fulfilled within a marriage, and can be grounding in terms of experiencing one’s authentic self. Beyond these important and special factors, however, are even greater implications.
Prior research had led to the conclusion that stress, in either gender, triggered a hormonal reaction that resulted in the classic “fight or flight” response. This study suggests that a woman’s response to stress results in a chemical reaction within the brain that actually causes her to make and maintain friendships with other women. It has also resulted in the belief that women have a “larger behavioral repertoire” than just the fight or flight response, and that the release of oxytocin in the face of a stressful situation may actually buffer the fight or flight response. The result of this buffering is a tendency to tend to her children and gather with other women. Engaging in these behaviors causes further release of oxytocin which produces a calming effect and counteracts stress.
Men do not experience this phenomenon because, under stress, their bodies produce high levels of testosterone which can exacerbate it. The implications of the different reactions between genders are huge in regards to health.
This reaction in women is labeled a “tend and befriend” response and it’s acknowledged that it may take some time for studies to reveal all the ways in which oxytocin elicits this. It may explain why women outlive men, and it has been firmly established by many studies that social ties have several positive impacts on health. These include lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol, and there have been studies conducted that directly correlate friendships, or lack of, with mortality.
It has also been identified in research that friendships improve quality of life. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that the more friendships women had the less likely they were to develop physical impairments with age, and that they experienced more joy-filled lives. The researchers who conducted this study concluded that the impact of friendships on health was so significant that lacking them is as detrimental as smoking or being overweight.
Research has also found that women who have close friendships are more capable of withstanding the extreme stressor of losing a spouse without developing new physical impairments or experiencing a loss of vitality.
This article concludes with a powerful and important point: If friends help us counter stress, keep us healthy, and even increase the longevity of our lives, why is it so challenging to make time to spend with them? Berkowitz cites author Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., in answer to this, stating that women’s friendships are one of the first things to be put by the way-side when life becomes busy. We can now understand what a mistake this is as women are “such a source of strength” to one another, are able to nurture each other, and can create an “unpressured space” to talk with one another in the unique and healing way that women can.
If you have visited my website, Melllavalleylmft.com , you know that the concept and practice of mindfulness plays an important role in how I work with clients as well as in my own life. This article, “Why Some People Get Burned Out and Others Don’t”, blends the concepts of emotional intelligence and mindfulness beautifully. Here is a summary, enjoy.
Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee, the authors of this article, identify that stress and burnout are not the same, and that stress often leads to burnout. It is possible, they say, to manage stressors in a way that safeguards one’s self against this, and that the key is tapping in to your emotional intelligence.
In a study of chief medical officers at 35 large hospitals conducted by Wiens, it was determined that despite reporting extremely high levels of stress, the majority were not burned out. Interviews with the chief medical officers revealed that the commonality regarding managing stress was emotional intelligence.
Research has suggested that emotional intelligence “supports superior coping abilities” and aids people in managing chronic stress and preventing burnout. There are various components of emotional intelligence that promote this:
Wiens and McKee point out that people engage in all kinds of maladaptive ways of dealing with stress. They offer the following suggestions for leveraging one’s emotional intelligence in order to avoid burnout:
Practicing and using emotional intelligence can prevent burnout. Be patient, forgiving, and kind with yourself while developing these skills and remember that it will take time and effort to improve.
There is much talk about the benefits of breathing, beyond the obvious of just staying alive. Meditation, yoga and martial arts instructors, psychotherapists, medical doctors and those involved in the fields of brain science espouse the mental, emotional and physical rejuvenation, healing, relaxation and focus that breath work can bring. (There is a definite reason why Joc Pederson, centerfielder for the Dodgers, breathes the way he does when at bat).
I want to share two breathing exercises I have found extremely helpful in dealing with stress and anxiety. I have run across numerous variations. However, this first one presented by Dr. Weil is very explicit in its execution. This breath exercise is apparently a very ancient one and seems to have been passed down with specific instructions.
#1 The count of 4, 7 and 8 is the key element and should not be changed. How fast or slow is not the emphasis in this exercise.
Inhale for 4 counts. I practice diaphragmatic breathing. Dr. Weil did not emphasize this, nor did he say NOT to do this.
Hold for 7 counts.
Exhale for 8 counts. The way the exhalation is done is very important: Place your tongue behind your front teeth. Breathe out blowing around your tongue so that your lips are pursed. Make a whooshing sound.
Do this 3-4 times, 3-4 or more times a day.
I have been doing this for about 8 weeks and I can honestly say that I am aware of an overall sense of calmness. It is very important to do this every day, though. Dr. Weil stated that if done regularly, in time you will experience a positive difference in how you respond to stress.
#2 This works well for those who are visual.
Imagine there are two vertical balloons that stretch from your lower abdomen up to your collarbones. As you inhale, imagine you are filling these balloons up from bottom to top. When you exhale, imagine and feel these balloons empty out from top to bottom.
The count with this one is inhale for a 4 SECOND count, pause, and exhale to a 5 SECOND count. Do this 10 times.
In both exercises note that the exhale is longer than the inhale. This promotes relaxation. Also, the mindfulness required to do these inherently promotes relaxation and focus.
Keep it simple. Do it often.
Mell La Valley, LMFT