Stress Less

Herbs, relaxation therapies, and “tend-and-befriend”coping can keep you mellow in a crazy world.

| September/October 2002

Seventy years ago, physiologist Walter Cannon, Ph.D., proposed that feeling threatened or anxious—what we now call “stressed”—triggers two reflexive reactions: attacking the threat or fleeing it. Cannon’s “fight-or-flight” concept has dominated scientific thinking about stress ever since. But the latest research shows that fight-or-flight describes men’s reactions to stress more than women’s. Most women react to stress differently, according to University of California at Los Angeles psychologist Shelley Taylor, Ph.D. Women are more likely to seek comfort in nurturance and companionship. Women “tend and befriend.”

In one noted study, stressed-out parents were observed as they returned home. The fathers often yelled at a family member (fight) or withdrew to spend time alone (flight). The mothers usually focused on their children (tend) or reached out to friends (befriend).

This gender difference makes evolutionary sense. As hunter-warriors, men would be most likely to reproduce if they knew when to fight and when to flee. But in a threatening world, how would a proto-human woman be most likely to pass on her genes? She might attack a predator or flee, but it would make more sense for her to hold her children close and congregate with other women, finding strength and protection in numbers.

Fight-or-flight versus tend-and-befriend also makes biochemical sense. When stressed, both sexes produce a hormone, oxytocin, which calms the body and promotes interpersonal bonding. But men’s testosterone counteracts oxytocin’s effect, priming men to fight or flee. Women’s estrogen amplifies oxytocin’s effect, making them more likely to tend and befriend.

Of course, at times men find comfort in friendship, and sometimes women fight or flee. However, the discovery of the tend-and-befriend coping style puts a decidedly different spin on traditional stress-management advice, a new perspective you can use to stay mellow in a crazy world.

Herbal teas: “Care to join me for a cup?”

A cup of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea is calming whether you’re alone or with others. Yet in the context of tend-and-befriend stress management, why drink alone if you can brew a pot to share with friends? Several herbs have scientifically verified calming and anti-anxiety effects. Enjoy them with friends.

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