Reaching out vs. retreating appears to be what distinguishes the instinctual reaction to stress between men and women. For women, the choice between fight or flight in the presence of a stressor applies less frequently than tend-and-befriend.
Whereas the typical male is more likely to narrow his response to stress down to a decision whether to fight the stressor directly and aggressively or retreat from it by way of an emotional withdrawal, most women choose to turn to family and friends by tending to or cultivating connections. Forming a network of support appears to be an innate characteristic of females also among primates, intended as a form of protection for themselves and their offspring. Clearly, the assumption is that there is more safety in numbers than in trying to make it alone in potentially dangerous situations.
Most women naturally construct a more intimate and complex social network than men do, and when they are stressed, in danger, or in times of change, they can turn to this network for support. Thus, they are more likely to seek out the company of other women and less likely to flee the stressor by withdrawing or isolating or to fight it directly and single-handedly, as most men appear to do.
This natural response to the stress reaction, moderated by a support system such as tend-and-befriend, might help explain why women live an average of five years longer than men. Men are also capable of creating complex social networks (now enormously facilitated by technological connectivity), but male-created social networks may lack the necessary level of intimacy or remain underutilized as a coping mechanism.
The Science Behind Tend-and-befriend
Research being conducted at UCLA under a grant by the National Science Foundation on Biopsychosocial Bases of Social Responses to Threat indicates that, in times of danger, most people seek positive social relationships that may provide safety for themselves and their offspring. This and prior research by Dr. Shelley Taylor at UCLA’s Social Neurosciences Lab suggests that the hormone oxytocin and other opioid peptides produced in the body stimulate these responses, most especially in women. Oxytocin in particular appears to function as a social thermostat that monitors the availability of social resources and prompts the seeking of additional connections when needed.