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5 December 2005
Stress & Women – What You Don’t Know
by Katherine Burnett-Watson

The holiday season is fast approaching. It’s the time of year that should be about relaxing with family and friends, giving gifts and celebrating spiritual beliefs, but for many women it’s a huge, stress-inducing nightmare. Instead of looking forward to a special time with family and friends, we’re thinking about cooking the perfect meal, buying the right presents or sewing last minute costumes for the kids’ school concerts.

How we deal with stress in our everyday lives is different for every individual, but groundbreaking research from UCLA has brought to light some interesting differences in the way men and women deal with stress, and is going a long way to debunking the commonly held theory that when under duress humans experience the “fight or flight” response.

The flight or fight response, also called the "acute stress response", was first described by American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s. The theory states that when confronted with a stressful situation, animals experience a hormonal change in the body that either fires it up to stand and fight or flee as fast as possible.

Humans behave in this way too, or at least that’s what scientific research has been telling us for the past five decades. However, this research forgot to take into account a very important factor – the gender of the research participants. For nearly 50 years research into stress and the way it affects us has been done almost exclusively on men, furthering the fight-or-flight response theory, but neglecting to study if women experienced the same responses as men.

In the UCLA study, titled Behavioral Response to Stress in Females, the researchers found that in stressful situations women respond in quite a different way – rather than fight-or-flight, women focus on social relations, in a way the researchers termed “tend and befriend.”

In stressful situations, both men and women produce the hormone oxytocin. Shelley E. Taylor, the study’s main researcher, suggests that this hormone has a significant effect on the body. “Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer, more relaxed, more social and less anxious. In several species, oxytocin leads to maternal behavior and to affiliation,” she explained. But the study suggests the way in which this hormone reacts with the gender-specific hormones estrogen and testosterone marks an end to the similarities between male and female stress.

When the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in women, it buffers the fight-or-flight response and encourages us to tend children and gather with other women instead. When we actually engage 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, however, because testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they're under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. The female hormone estrogen seems to enhance it.

So if spending time with our friends is a way for women to counteract and reduce stress, why does it seem that we never have time to do just that? Busy work, family, home and recreation schedules mean that women are busier, and more stressed, now than ever before. These crucial friendships that are so good for our mental and physical health are being pushed aside and forgotten as we strive to do more and be more. Author Marla Paul explores the issue of maintaining friendships and provides practical tips for facing the challenges that our essential friendships face in her book The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You’re Not A Kid Anymore.

The UCLA study does not reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and socialize with other women, but the "tend and befriend" notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may go some way to explaining why women consistently outlive men. Many studies have found that social relationships can reduce the risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. In one study, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death, and in another study, those who had the most friends over a 9 year period cut their risk of death by more than 60 percent.

And friends don’t just help you live longer; they can help you live better. A Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends a women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a happy and fulfilled life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

Aside from socializing with friends to help reduce stress in your life, the government’s website for women, WomensHealth.gov, recommends the following tips to reduce and relieve stress.

  • Relax. Some ways to relax include deep breathing, yoga, meditation and massage therapy. If you can’t do these things, take a few minutes to sit, listen to soothing music, or read a book.

  • Make time for yourself. It’s important to care for yourself. No matter how busy you are, try to set aside at least 15 minutes each day in your schedule to do something for yourself, like taking a bubble bath, going for a walk, or calling a friend.

  • Sleep. Sleeping is a great way to help both your body and mind. With enough sleep, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk for illness. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

  • Eat right. Enjoy a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Good sources of protein can be peanut butter, chicken, or tuna salad. Eat whole-grains, such as wheat breads and wheat crackers. Avoid caffeinated drinks and food.

  • Exercise. Your body makes certain chemicals, called endorphins, before and after you work out. They relieve stress and improve your mood.

  • Get help from a professional if you need it. For more serious stress related disorders, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, therapy can be helpful. There also are medications that can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety and help promote sleep.

  • Write down your thoughts. Keeping a journal can be a great way to get things off your chest and work through issues.

  • Get a hobby. Find something you enjoy. Make sure to give yourself time to explore your interests.

  • Set limits. When it comes to things like work and family, figure out what you can really do. There are only so many hours in the day. Set limits with yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to say NO to requests for your time and energy.

  • Plan your time. Think ahead about how you’re going to spend your time. Write a to-do list. Figure out what’s most important to do.

  • Don’t deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, or overeating.

For more information about relieving stress, visit www.4woman.gov

Books we like about maintaining female friendships:

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