Most of us can handle a brief crisis. But as the financial recession wears on, more and more of us are facing the kind of chronic stress that can threaten both mind and body wellness. • Losing a job and financial security are obviously stressful to anyone who has that experience. But research also tells us that how we experience stress has a lot to do with our gender. Men and women have different basic needs when under stress, and too often, those needs aren't being met.
According to a study out of UCLA in 1998, most men, and some women, react to danger with the classic "fight or flight response.'' In other words, fight the threat or get away from it.
But most women feel an instinctive need to "tend and befriend" as a response to stress.
My husband and I were married only about three months when we had a pretty standard newlywed communication conflict. We resolved it, but the next thing he did was to head out to run some errands. I called my cousin in New York to tell her all about the argument.
I was deep into the story when he returned, surprised that I was spilling our beans to her. I really could not explain the urge I felt to talk it through with someone else (preferably a woman) but I knew that I always felt better when I did.
Now I just cite the research and tell him I am "tending and befriending."
Essentially, we women are physiologically wired to reach out to each other, communicating and connecting in ways that will make us feel more secure and less afraid. The problem is that today's society inhibits this fundamental life process. For most of us, there is literally no time left in jam-packed days for any meaningful tending and befriending.
As a consequence, everyone suffers, including the men in our lives and our children, and of course, we women. Even corporate America feels the side effects of denying women ample time and opportunity to connect, especially when stress levels rise. According to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, ". . . nearly one-third of all U.S. workers have jobs that discourage social connections, and that fraction is rising."
According to neurological findings, women who allow themselves to connect with each other release an essential brain chemical called oxytocin, which ultimately makes them feel more safe and secure. This is a profound way women have always handled stress and taken care of themselves. Until now.
One quick glance into most homes or businesses depicts an environment that does not promote and even actively prevents this phenomenon from taking place.
As primary caretakers, women tend to give the most in their relationships, leaving little time or energy for self nurturing.
I sat in the back at a conference recently so I could leave a few minutes early to get ready for my presentation. I took the time to look around at the couples seated in the auditorium that Saturday who were there to learn about improving relationships.
It was no surprise that most of the attendees were women. But the men who bravely accompanied wives or girlfriends sat listening to the speaker while their women rubbed their backs or rested reassuring arms on theirs.
No wonder married men live longer than single men. In a healthy relationship, they are on the receiving end of the female's nurturing ways. According to the research, marriage improves the male's chance for a longer life, but not necessarily the woman's. She is probably too exhausted from all that caretaking of others to take care of herself.
Even the women who have risen to the top of the ladder in their chosen fields demonstrate worsened health statistics. For most of them, it really is lonely at the top. Chances are that after the work day ends, they face a continuation of tasks trying to meet the needs of family and home.
Our current financial crisis offers each of us an opportunity to re-evaluate priorities, as individuals and in our relationships. Some of us will just try to adjust to the additional stress, adding more to an overwhelmed state of existence. Others will ignore the warning signs, eventually surprised by the cumulative effects of chronic stress.
The wisest among us will use this time wisely, re-evaluating life choices and habits. For women, that might mean spending some time connecting and re-establishing relationships, while tending and befriending. And when that happens, we will all benefit.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides counseling services and presents workshops on a variety of wellness and family health topics. To contact her, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (727) 418-7882.