07/25/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

Tend and Befriend

Tom Merton via Getty Images

"Men walk, women talk." The veracity of this the popular saying was proven in a landmark study conducted by two women scientists at UCLA.

The long-held idea that the familiar "fight or flight" mechanism was the universal human response to stress (based of studies that were conducted with only male subjects) was turned on its ear by Drs. Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor. Their research suggests that women don't necessarily run away or engage is confrontational combat when they are threatened. According to their stunning findings, women seem to operate from a larger range of behavioral options.

"Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible," explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study's authors. "It's an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers."

But women react completely differently. In stressful situations, women experience a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. Specifically, the hormone oxytocin, released as part of the stress response in women, lessens the fight or flight response and prompts us to tend children, old people and animals, and gather together with other women instead.

And once women do engage in this tending and befriending, studies suggest, more oxytocin is released, which further counteracts stress and produces a comforting effect. "This calming response does not occur in men," says Dr. Klein, "because testosterone -- which men produce in high levels when they're under stress -- seems to reduce the effects oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it."

What do you do when you are worried, or threatened, stressed to the max or scared sh*tless? You call your girlfriend! Consider the enormous significance of this behavior and the ramifications of its effect on our health and well-being. Study after study, years of research, have found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. "There's no doubt," says Dr. Klein, "that friends are helping us live longer."

Friendships not only keep us alive, they enhance our quality of life.

The famed Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop serious physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading joyful lives. The results were so significant that the researchers concluded that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

Even the event of the death of a spouse, perhaps the most intense stress inducer, failed to result in any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality in women who had a close friend with whom she confide and commiserate. Those without friends did not fare nearly so well.

There is a web of women living lightly in the world.
As gently as hand upon forehead, checking for fever,
the web touches the pulse of the planet
with intention
to help
to heal
to comfort.

There is a flood of women weeping softly for the world.
As tender as hand upon heart, cherishing her precious children,
the web cries for lost intention
to heal
to comfort
to help.

There is a circle of women dancing joyfully through the world.
As exultant as hand touching yoni, celebrating our mysteries,
the web sings for intention found again
to comfort
to help
to heal.

There is a web of women tenderly enclosing the world.
As sturdy as hands setting roots, knowing that we all are kin,
the web encircles intention held
to help
to heal
to comfort.

-- © 2000 Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.