By Ophira Edut
I’ve long been fascinated with the science behind oxytocin, the “bonding hormone” women release during sex, breastfeeding and even moments of close friendship. Now, a landmark UCLA study by Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D. and S.E. Taylor, Ph.D. shows that women may release oxytocin during times of extreme stress. Rather than look for the nearest exit, women “tend and befriend”: they seek out other women to bond with, and children to protect.
Decades of research helped scientists develop the theory of “fight or flight,” a mechanism developed when early humans had to escape saber-toothed tigers. The UCLA study shows that women’s brains could have a much more complex network of responses.
Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.” “In fact,” says Dr. Klein,”it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men”, says Dr. Klein, “because testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen”, she adds, “seems to enhance it.”
The two researchers, both women, happened upon the idea when they noticed their male colleagues “holed up” when stressed, while they chatted over coffee or tidied up the lab. When they found out that 90% of stress research had been tested on males, the inside joke evolved into a serious study.
I come from a family of women that certainly fits this pattern. When I’m stressing over a deadline, I call my sisters and friends, clean the house, and go into “hyper-nesting” mode. My mom, a rabbi, spends hours on the phone with her best friend or sister — or calls me — every time she has to write a sermon. What my dad calls procrastinating may simply be a female brain trying to seek relief.
This also makes me wonder about women’s response to abuse and rape. Only in very few situations do women either fight or flee when attacked. I wonder how this will influence treatment of battered or assaulted women.
Beyond all of that, female friendships are proven to have a marked impact on women’s vitality. A Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Study found that women who had close female friendships enjoyed better quality of life, and were able to cope with painful life situations like the death of a spouse.
I look forward to reading more as this study develops.