Science + Technology

UCLA Researchers Identify Key Biobehavioral Pattern Used by Women to Manage Stress

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Researchers at UCLA have identified a broad biological and behavioralpattern that explains a key method used by women to cope with stress -and at the same time highlights one of the most basic differences betweenmen's and women's behavior.

This pattern, referred to by UCLA principal investigator Shelley E.Taylor as "tend and befriend," shows that females of many species,including humans, respond to stressful conditions by protecting and nurturingtheir young (the "tend" response), and by seeking social contactand support from others - especially other females (the "befriend"response).

This "tend-and-befriend" pattern is a sharp contrast to the"fight-or-flight" behavior that has long been considered theprincipal method for coping with stress by both men and women.

"For decades, psychological research maintained that both men andwomen rely on fight or flight to cope with stress - meaning that when confrontedby stress, individuals either react with aggressive behavior, such as verbalconflict and more drastic actions, or withdraw from the stressful situation,"said Taylor.

"We found that men often react to stress with a fight-or-flightresponse," Taylor said, "but women are more likely to managetheir stress with a tend-and-befriend response by nurturing their childrenor seeking social contact, especially with other women."

The UCLA study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of thePsychological Review of the American Psychological Association, based itsfindings on analysis of hundreds of biological and behavioral studies ofresponse to stress by thousands of humans and animal subjects.

"The tend-and-befriend method of coping with stress seems to becharacteristic of females in many species," Taylor said.

Just as the fight-or-flight response is based on biological changesthat occur in response to stress, the UCLA researchers propose that thetend-and-befriend pattern may have a biological basis. In particular, theresearch team points to the hormone oxytocin as playing a large role inthe tend-and-befriend response, in conjunction with sex hormones and thebody's natural opioid system.

"Oxytocin has been studied largely for its role in childbirth,but it is also secreted in both men and women as a response to stress,"she said. "Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer,more relaxed, more social and less anxious. In several animal species,oxytocin leads to maternal behavior and to affiliation.

"Men secrete oxytocin too, but the effects of oxytocin seem tobe reduced by male hormones, so oxytocin may have reduced effects on men'sphysiology and behavior under stress. Oxytocin, along with other stresshormones, may play a key factor in reducing females' response to stress."

The UCLA study also found that women are far more likely than men to"befriend" in response to stress - seeking social contact whenthey are feeling stressed, with befriending methods ranging from talkingon the phone with relatives or friends, to such simple social contactsas asking for directions when lost.

"This difference in seeking social support during stressful periodsis the principal way men and women differ in their response to stress,and one of the most basic differences in men's and women's behavior,"Taylor said.

The different ways that men and women respond to stress may also helpresearchers understand why men are more vulnerable to the adverse healtheffects of stress, according to Taylor.

"Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiencesby developing certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension,aggressive behavior, or abuse of alcohol or hard drugs," Taylor said."Because the tend-and-befriend regulatory system may, in some ways,protect women against stress, this biobehavioral pattern may provide insightsinto why women live an average of seven and a half years longer than men."

"The tend-and-befriend pattern exhibited by women probably evolvedthrough natural selection," Taylor said. "Thousands of generationsago, fleeing or fighting in stressful situations was not a good optionfor a female who was pregnant or taking care of offspring, and women whodeveloped and maintained social alliances were better able to care formultiple offspring in stressful times.

The "tending" pattern is especially apparent in research conductedby UCLA psychologist Rena Repetti, who, in one of the studies analyzedin Taylor's research, examined the differences between fathers' and mothers'behaviors with their children after a stressful workday.

"When the typical father in the study came home after a stressfulday at work, he responded to stress by wanting to be left alone, enjoyingpeace and quiet away from the stress of the office; when office-relatedstress was particularly acute, a typical response would be to react harshlyor create conflict with his wife or children," Taylor said. "Whenthe typical mother in the study came home from work bearing stress, shewas more likely to cope with her bad day by focusing her attention on nurturingher children.

How did biobehavioral differences in how men and women cope with stresselude researchers until now?

"Until five years ago, many research studies on stress focusedon males - either male rodents or human male participants in the laboratory,"Taylor said. "Women were largely excluded in stress research becausemany researchers believed that monthly fluctuations in hormones createdstress responses that varied too widely to be considered statisticallyvalid.

"But since 1995, when the federal government mandated broad representationof both men and women in agency-funded medically-relevant research grants,the number of women represented in stress studies has increased substantially.Researchers are now beginning to realize that men and women use differentcoping mechanisms when dealing with stress."

"This is the first effort to identify a new stress regulatory systemsince the 1950s, and we are very excited about its ability to explain stress-relatedbehavior that has not fit in traditional approaches to studying stress,"Taylor said. "For example, people under stress, especially women,often seek social support from others, but until now, we haven't understoodwhy or what the biological effects of support are. We are much closer now."

In addition to Taylor, the research team includes former UCLA post-doctoralscholars Laura Cousino Klein (now an assistant professor of biobehavioralhealth at Penn State University), Brian P. Lewis (now an assistant professorat Syracuse), and Regan A.R. Gurung, (now an assistant professor at theUniversity of Wisconsin/Green Bay); and UCLA graduate students Tara L.Gruenewald and John A. Updegraff.

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