When there is a conflict, the brain goes into an instinctual response pattern. We’ve all heard of it. (Can you guess?) Fight or flight! It turns out that the research proving the accuracy of the fight or flight response was actually mainly performed on male subjects (!). Researchers at the University of Los Angeles realized that there is another behavioral response which they call “tend and befriend” which happens to be the dominant response to stress in female subjects.
What happens is this: in a stressful situation, when heart rate, cortisol and blood pressure increase, there is a nurturing/attachment response in the brain that can counteract those fire signals. The theory goes that fleeing too soon at signs of potential danger would put a female’s offspring at risk. She would therefore develop another mechanism for handling stress and conflict that would allow her to “stand her ground” in another way. When a female nurses and soothes her young, she releases the hormone oxytocin in herself and the young. Especially when the young are stressed, mothers sought to ‘tend’ them, where the male response for such behavior was not as strong.
And on ‘befriending,’ the research pointed out that females would seek out the company of other females in most stressful situations, when their male counterparts would not do so necessarily. Case in point: elephants. When a mother elephant gives birth, she will be surrounded by a protective wall of other adult female elephants, or when a “bonding group” of elephants becomes too populated, a group of young females will leave and start their own group. Tending and befriending. The researchers had no problem extending their research on rodents to human behavior, watching their colleagues deal with stress in the labs or beyond (!).
Some close associates to Gandhi said he was more than “Bapu,” or father. He was also “Ba,” or mother. Perhaps that motherly touch was a sign of his (and all of our) capacity for ‘tend and befriend.’
Notice in your life where you ‘tend and befriend’ instead of ‘fight or flee.’ See if you can consciously extend that to other situations. Try increasing the level of stress or danger you’re trying to re-manage.
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org