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Study: Stressed-out women don't fight or flee

Published Sep. 27, 2005

"Fight or flight" was based on tests of males, scientists say. Instead, women "tend" children and "befriend" other women.

Contrary to established theory, men and women use radically different methods for coping with stress, a new study has concluded.

For decades, behavioral scientists have assumed that humans and many other animals of both sexes respond to acute stress with a "fight or flight" response, in which the body readies itself for either aggression or hasty withdrawal.

The new research, by six psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, challenges that view, arguing that the fight-or-flight dogma resulted because the vast majority of animals used to investigate the phenomenon were male rats, and that in human experiments, "women constituted about 17 percent of participants."

Recent observations, the researchers say, indicate that women, and females of numerous other species, typically employ a different response, which the psychologists term "tend and befriend."

When stress mounts, women are more prone to protect and nurture their children ("tend") and turn to social networks of supportive females ("befriend"). That behavior became prevalent over millenniums of human evolution, the researchers speculate, because successful tenders and befrienders would be more likely to have their offspring survive and pass on their mothers' traits.

The tend-and-befriend response probably has a physiological basis, the UCLA group argues, in the form of a powerful hormone called oxytocin, produced deep in the brain and distributed by the pituitary gland.

Oxytocin is secreted at high levels in women during childbirth and aids in labor. But it is also produced in both sexes by stress, and exerts a calming influence. Estrogen, a female sex hormone, seems to amplify this effect, the researchers suggest, whereas androgens, male sex hormones, apparently diminish it.

That presumed difference, which the UCLA team plans to test in upcoming experiments using blood samples from stressed human subjects, could also help explain why American women, on average, live 7.5 years longer than men.

The result "looks like a scientifically correct and valid conclusion," said psychologist James Campbell Quick, a stress expert at the University of Texas at Arlington. "It really sounds like they've got a ground-breaking paper there." The study, released Thursday, will be published in a future issue of Psychological Review of the American Psychological Association.

"I hope women don't find it offensive," said UCLA lead researcher Shelley Taylor. "But the fact is that women have their own ways of responding to stress, and they're different from men's. And the fact that we've been largely oblivious to this ever since the fight-or-flight concept was first introduced in the 1930s is astonishing."

"It's very interesting work," said Brian Doyle, clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School, especially the notion that "there is a biological basis for the difference."

The UCLA team analyzed 200 studies of stress behavior and physiology conducted since 1985, and determined that "the desire to affiliate with others" while under stress is the "primary gender difference in adult human behavioral responses to stress."

(Technically, stress means any condition that causes your body chemistry to change. Broadly, it means preception of a threat, danger or challenge, ranging from work anxiety, romantic problems and religious doubts to an outright attack.)

It has been underexamined, the authors note, not only because of the disproportionately small number of female subjects in experiments, but also because female hormone levels are subject to variation during the menstrual cycle. Therefore they were assumed to be "confusing and often uninterpretable," the study found.

Several experts emphasized that the "tend and befriend" hypothesis is meant to apply, on average, to women as a whole. "We should not lose track of within-group differences," Quick noted, and the theory cannot "conclude anything about any individual."

Moreover, there are indications that, at least in affluent countries, many young men and women seem to be modifying their coping strategies.

Psychologist Carole Rayburn of Silver Spring, Md., who is studying lifestyle choices among young adults, said: "The younger the population, the more the males and females are likely to be less traditional. The men are more communal, the women are not just communal but (aggressive) also."