The ‘flight or fight’ reaction is often mentioned when talking about how humans respond to stress. Another way of reacting has become known as ‘tend and befriend’ and is generally something females do more than men.
Until the late 1990s, flight or fight was the dominant model used when talking of how humans react to stress. However, female researchers at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) had noticed the men and women scientists at the university seemed to react differently to stress so they delved further into the issue. They realised about 90% of previous research into reactions to stress by humans or animals had been done with male subjects. This gave a skewed result to the research.
To digress here, it is important to consider a number of factors when thinking about the validity of research and studies. How many subjects were involved? Was the research done on animals or people? Were those involved male or female or an even mix of both sexes? When conducting research with humans, other variables include age, level of health, cultural background and education can be relevant. In some situations it may be difficult or just misleading to generalise.
When further research on how people react to stress was conducted it was found women are more likely to react with 'tend and befriend’ behaviour. Sometimes men react this way, but studies to date show it is much more common among women.
When experiencing stress, women often have an automatic response which makes them connect more closely with others by being caring and compassionate. They may react by nurturing or carrying out 'tending' activities to protect those who depend on them. Tending behaviours include caring for dependents and soothing them if they are showing signs of being stressed. These tending activities decrease distress in both parties.
Stress causes oxytocin to be released which will cause an increase in empathy, trust and a desire to bond more closely to others. Men release less oxytocin than women. Ongoing research is being conducted to find out more about the connection between stress and the secretion of oxytocin.
When they are feeling stressed, women may choose to simply spend time with friends or family as a way of strengthening their social network. This is in addition to any specific nurturing and tending activities. Women turn especially to other women when they are feeling stressed.
Women often react to stress by talking about their feelings to someone they trust. This may be a family member, a friend or a professional. Often women find comfort and help by attending a support group. Talking helps women to form closer bonds.
The flight or fight theory is relevant to many situations where there is stress, but tend and befriend applies in others. Further research is being carried out to work out the parts played by the SRY gene found only in men and oxytocin which is secreted more in women, among other variables. Human reactions are indeed complex.