Tend and Befriend: The Science Behind Sisterhood

You are probably familiar with the “flight or fight” stress response.


Written by: Tami Astorino, co-creator of Rise Gatherings

You are probably familiar with the “flight or fight” stress response. The idea that we have a primitive instinct to run or ramp up for a duel when faced with stress. The stress response causes the body to secrete stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine and others) into the bloodstream so that our bodies are more able to deal with a threat – by either fighting with or fleeing from it. While this response undoubtedly served our ancestors when they ran into a tiger, it only sometimes is necessary in our contemporary lives. Unfortunately this surge in hormones can actually accumulate in the body, creating disease and unnecessary physical as well as emotional tension.

I was intrigued to recently discover there is a third response to stress. Newer research on women reveals a third stress response that operates very differently than the desire to fight or run and affirms my belief in connection as a modality for health and well-being.

While reading Rebecca Solnit’s compelling book of feminist essays, The Mother of All Questions, I leaned in with interest as Solnit shared the findings of a 2000 UCLA study that indicated in addition to eliciting the flight or fight response, stress can trigger a social behavior, especially in females, and that this dynamic is deeply rooted in the evolution of social mammals. In other words, there’s a third, often deployed response to stress – an instinct to gather for solidarity, support, and advice. And this response was revealed when studying females!

Whereas research on the fight or flight stress response was based largely on studies of male rats and male human beings, in the 2000 UCLA study, several psychologists looked at the behavior of females when faced with stress and they noted that “behaviorally, females’ responses are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend-and-befriend.’ Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring….befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.” Not only women tend and befriend, but Solnit suggests women may do this more routinely.

I know this experience of tending and befriending when faced with stress first hand because I have it daily. Do I want to fight or flee? Sometimes, but neither of those is very productive, in fact, they can produce negative results; fleeing becomes stuffing my emotions inside, or fighting becomes taking my anger out on myself or my family. When flooded with either day to day or intense stress my first instinct is to pick up the phone and call a friend. Connecting with someone else for me is like hitting a release valve on my emotions – I am soothed and grounded from sharing my story and being heard. Asking for, or providing compassion and understanding in response to a situation – now that’s a healthy stress response!

It makes me think our instinct to open facebook to share or validate someone’s story is a primitive one based on a desire to tend and befriend. Because we are no longer living as our ancestors did in close community, we reach for our virtual one.

Perhaps the third response to stress is the feminine response that lies in all human beings. My work creating shared empowerment experiences for girls and women is based on this primitive instinct and the results always inspire. Every time I facilitate or participate in a supportive environment where people share stories and befriend others I am moved by our shared humanity. When we reveal our experience to others, it becomes all of our truth. Our ability to tend and befriend – ourselves and others – is the stress response we can all deploy more often.

Tami Astorino, M.Ed., co-creator of Rise Gatherings, facilitates classes and retreat experiences to empower women. Fueled by her years of creating opportunities for people to grow and experience more joy, Tami seeks to create communities that raise voices and spirits. Find out more at risegatherings.com