‘Fight or Flight’ Isn’t the Only Human Stress Response

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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 hormone that promotes bonding. There’s also an evolutionary behavioral component: As the paper notes, running away or fighting aren’t that conducive to taking care of a baby, a role that’s fallen mainly to women throughout human history.

But while tend-and-befriend may be a more common response for women, Gurung notes, anyone can take advantage of it as a way to cope. And it may be especially beneficial right now, when most of us are struggling in isolation, stressed out by a threat — the virus — that renders both fight and flight useless. Here’s how to channel your stress into a response that helps you create a sense of community and support, during a time when we could all use plenty of both.

Show affection for a loved one

In the 2000 paper, researchers noted that holding or hugging can release oxytocin, which lowers feelings of stress and promotes feelings of connection. So if you can cuddle someone in your home, even a pet, do it. It’s more powerful than you might think.

The effect doesn’t just apply to physical nurturing, like cuddling; it can also mean whipping up your roommate’s favorite meal for dinner after they’ve had a bad day, or caring for a partner who’s feeling under the weather.

Make a kind gesture from afar

If your living situation doesn’t allow for that kind of in-person tending, Emily Ansell, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, says it can be equally effective to do something kind for a neighbor or stranger, even from a distance. In her research, Ansell has found that when people engage in prosocial behaviors during times of stress, their stress has less of an effect on their mood.

Ansell has a few theories as to why: “It might help us to distract ourselves from stress, and it might give us a sense of meaning,” she says. “It could also be that by acting in a prosocial way, we are activating oxytocin, which can reduce feelings of fear and distress.”

To reap the same effects, make a habit of doing something kind for someone when you feel on edge. During normal circumstances, that might mean buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you in line. During a pandemic, you might have to be more strategic: Call up a friend, listen to their struggles, and share some encouragement. Or you could sew some masks for a local hospital or clinic, or donate money to a charity that provides meals for people with food insecurity.

“What’s important is finding tangible ways people are helping to ease other people’s suffering,” says Ansell. “We might not know the beneficiary of our goodwill, but these are still prosocial behaviors.”

Reach out for support

According to Glenn Geher, an evolutionary psychologist and professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz, the “befriending” part of tend-and-befriend stems from a hardwired drive to seek safety in numbers — it’s about forging a meaningful connection with someone so you can collaborate to fend off threats and, along the way, reduce the stress response. (From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, he notes, that sort of have-each-other’s-backs response is more prominent in the female members of the primate family tree, who, “when they’re under stress, will often marshall the resources of other females around them.”)

To intentionally reap the lessons of the befriending instinct, you can focus your stress-induced energy on building and strengthening a web of social relationships that remind you you’re not alone when the worst happens. Schedule a Zoom happy hour with your co-workers once in a while, even if you’re Zoom-fatigued. Send some memes to a buddy. Spend an hour on the phone with someone who really knows you, like your college roommate or your best friend from middle school.

Even if you don’t air your struggles or deepest secrets, you’ll get the feeling that you have a network of people you can trust, which Geher says can be a major stress reducer, even if the stressor itself — like, say, a global pandemic — isn’t going away anytime soon. As I learned from my therapist all those years ago, there’s immense psychological comfort in knowing that you won’t be left to fend for yourself.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store