A recent study by researchers at UCLA discovered that women respond to stress differently than men. While this is no news to anyone with a significant other, research is beginning to explain why.
This five-year, landmark UCLA study found that when women are stressed their bodies respond with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to seek out other women, which reduces our stress. Movies and books such as the "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood," "Enchanted April," and "The Color Purple" focus on the joys of female friendships, and how much other women help us to define who we are, and who we are becoming. Do these books and movies capture something that women intuitively know: we need each other?
There have been hundreds of studies about stress over the last few decades. Ninety percent of the studies were done with males. Researchers thought that both men and women responded to stress in the same way, with the flight-or-fight response. It was believed that as humans have evolved our bodies have learned to respond with added strength to either fight or flee dangerous situations.
Thanks to this UCLA study, we now know that when stressed, women's brains release the hormone oxytocin, which buffers the fight-or-flight response, and encourages us to seek out other women. Furthermore, when we do get in the company of other women, our brains release even more oxytocin, which further counteracts stress and produces a calming effect. In men, testosterone overrides oxytocin, and thus their desire to seek out others diminishes and a more intense reaction to stress can occur.
The two researchers who designed this UCLA study, Drs. Klein and Taylor, got their research idea from watching their male and female colleagues react differently to the stress in their research labs. Women tended to congregate and discuss their stress. Men, on the other hand, tended to isolate in their offices.
This got me thinking about how differently my husband and I deal with stress. And, when asking various friends about what they have observed, many stated that they can see this difference not only between themselves and their husbands, but between their sons and daughters as well.
The authors of the study hypothesized that female friendships may at least partially explain why women live longer than men. Study after study supports the notion that social ties reduce heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, and reduce the risk of dying from disease. The famed Nurse's Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the more joyous their lives were, and the less likely they were to develop physical symptoms and impairments. The research was so significant that the researchers concluded that a lack of female friendships was as detrimental to women's health as is obesity and smoking.
Recent popular press books, such as "Odd Girl Ou"t and "Queen Bees and Wannabes," discuss how cruel girls and women can be to each other. One cannot deny the fact that there is often aggression and competition between women that is expressed in unhealthy ways. Still, we have difficulty in our society tolerating assertiveness in women, and, the repercussions of this often come out in how we treat each other. Positive female relationships are essential to our health and happiness.
If female relationships are so important, why is it often the first thing we let go? There seems to be on over-focus on work and family these days (not that these aren't very important to tend to), but, when time crunches arrive, the first thing many of us do is cancel lunch with our girlfriend. If female relationships as are important as the research seems to indicate, wouldn't we all be better spouses, mothers and employees if we spent more precious time with our friends?
And, how can we teach our children that friendships are invaluable? Most children these days are involved in a multitude of groups, sports and clubs. If you ask parents why they have their children in so many activities they will tell you about the benefits of these activities, but also that they don't feel like it is safe anymore for their children to be out in their neighborhoods like we were when we were children.
Obviously these activities help to develop muscle strength, social skills, a team spirit, and other intellectual abilities. But can they replace the importance of a bike ride with a girlfriend, or munching on popcorn and watching TV together, or sympathizing together over hurt feelings? How can we teach our children the importance of friendship in a society where electronics and fear seem to rule the day? As we all struggle with these conflict demands and messages, one thing is certain -- women need other women.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.