By Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually
counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a
daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress
with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain
friendships with other women. It's a stunning find that has turned five
decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down. 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 Cousin
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.

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire
than just fight or flight; In fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the
hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it
buffers the fight-or-flight response and encourages her to tend children
and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages 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, says Dr. Klein, because
testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they're under
stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen; she adds,
seems to enhance it.

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made
in a classic “aha” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking
one day in a lab at UCLA. There was this joke that when the women who
worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had
coffee, and bonded, says Dr. Klein. When the men were stressed, they holed
up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher
Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I
showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we
were onto something.

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist
after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein
and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research,
scientists had made a huge mistake: The fact that women respond to stress
differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin
encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the
“tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain
why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has 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.

In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no
friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another
study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk
of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses' Health Study
from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the
less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and
the more likely they were to be leading a joyful 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!

And that's not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women
functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the
face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend
and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new
physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends
were not always so fortunate. Yet if friends counter the stress that seems
to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and
even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with
them? That's a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson,
Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' and
Women's Friendships (Three Rivers Press,1998). Every time we get overly
busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships
with other women, explains Dr. Josselson. We push them right to the back
burner. That's really a mistake because women are such a source of
strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have
unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women
do when they're with other women. It's a very healing experience.

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald,
T. L.,Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000).
Female Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not
Fight or Flight” Psychological Review, 107(3),41_429.

Photo courtesy of Studio Duva. (my wedding!)