Do All Women Fare Better Because of the Tend-and-Befriend Stress Response?

Caitlin M. Jones Rochester Institute of Technology

According to the paper written by McCarthy, the fairly recent discovery of the tend-and-befriend stress response has given insight into how women may be better adapted to handling stress. Unlike males, who only experience the fight-or-flight response, women seem to have both stress responses and it is the tend-and-befriend response that helps women more. In stressful situations, women tend to their offspring to protect them and also find relief in the presence of other women. The main source of this stress response is found in the hormone oxytocin, which is generally associated with labor and lactation. As women engage in the tend-and-befriend behavior, their levels of oxytocin increase, therefore reducing the amount of stress experienced.

This information seems quite accurate according to the author, but one question that must be asked is whether the personality of the female plays any role in how they respond to stress. It is understood that certain personality traits lend themselves well to getting along with others and being able to open up to people, such as extraversion and openness. Women, who share these personality traits and experience an increase in oxytocin through pregnancy, seem more likely to engage in, at least, the befriending response. They would be more willing to share experiences and bond with other women who are in similar circumstances. On the other hand, would women who go through pregnancy and breast feeding, but who are more introverted and shy, seek out other women in times of stress? Since these women are normally not open to forming friendships or confiding in others, then the tend-and-befriend response might not influence them. More succinctly, the question being asked is, are the advantages of the tend-and-befriend stress response contingent on the personality of women? This is a question and an issue that was not addressed by McCarthy, but is an important question to ask.

Another issue that should be raised when discussing the tend-and-befriend response is regarding the attachment style that existed between mothers and daughters. Different attachment styles exist that parents conform to when raising their children, such as the secure, avoidant, and ambivalent types. Based on the attachment formed, it can have an influence on how that person develops and possibly how they would eventually raise their own children. Individuals who had a secure attachment are more prepared to handle the pressures of raising children and are more inclined to develop a secure attachment with their own children. Parents who experienced either the avoidant or ambivalent attachment styles when they were young would be more at risk of showing those same behaviors towards their children. Whether a woman has a dependent husband or partner greatly determines how much a negative attachment style will influence their behavior. Nevertheless, the point of this information is that it might not necessarily depend on the tend-and-befriend stress response that makes a woman better able to handle stress. If a woman has a strong connection with her children, then there is no doubt that she would want to do everything in her power to protect them from danger. However, women who do not express great concern for their children or are not as responsive to their needs (characteristic of the avoidant and ambivalent styles), will have less capabilities or desire to care and protect their children in times of stress and emergency. Consequently, whether a mother would want to protect her children does not rely specifically on an increase in hormones, but their overall personality disposition.

It seems that there are some issues that were not addressed by McCarthy in her analysis of the tend-and-befriend stress response. Women are different in so many ways that assigning one explanation for behavior is not the most logical approach. McCarthy should be well aware of this, and hopefully it is not the point of her paper to do just that. However, this paper does raise other interesting questions regarding this stress response, such as do all women fair better because of the tend-and-befriend stress response?