‘Fight or Flight’ Isn’t the Only Human Stress Response
There’s another option, called ‘tend and befriend’
Several years ago, I confessed to my therapist at the time that I was nervous about an upcoming flight. It was my first time traveling solo, and I couldn’t stop worrying about being left to fend for myself if something terrible happened.
My therapist’s suggestion was a simple one: If I was scared of flying alone, I shouldn’t go through it alone. “Just make friends with the person next to you.” she said. To my surprise, it worked — and to this day, I’m still Facebook friends with Jeanne, the middle-aged woman who kept me calm from Minneapolis to Fort Myers.
A decade later, I’ve found myself employing the same strategy to get through the global pandemic, albeit at a distance: When my stress feels especially overwhelming, I make sure I’m not alone. I FaceTime family members at least once a week. When I’m doing yard work, I chat with my next-door neighbors. After a little sleuthing, I even reconnected with my best friend from kindergarten on social media. To me, these connections aren’t just fun ways to pass slow-moving time in quarantine — they feel like an essential way to cope with anxiety.
Most people are familiar with the fight-or-flight response: In times of extreme stress, your nervous system revs you up to physically fight or run from a threat. It served our ancestors well when that stress was coming from, say, a hungry predator. But modern-day stressors, which are usually social or emotional, don’t always require a tussle or a sprint.
And in 2000, a group of psychologists argued in a now-famous paper that there’s a behavioral alternative to fight-or-flight: tend-and-befriend. Tending involves initiating nurturing actions that help someone physiologically cope with stress, while befriending has to do with building social networks that promote a sense of safety.
According to the researchers, the tend-and-befriend instinct skews heavily female. In part, that’s physiological: Regan A.R. Gurung, a professor of psychology at Oregon State University and one of the paper’s co-authors, explains that men are higher in testosterone, which fuels the fight-or-flight response, while women tend to have higher levels of oxytocin, the…