When I was growing up my parents constantly stressed the importance of going to college. That idea was pretty much drilled into my head from the day I started kindergarten. "You're not going to get into a good college with grades like that, Jimmy!" My mother would always say, even on some of my earliest report cards. So you can imagine the stress I put them under when, approximately eleven years later, it looked like I wasn't even going to graduate from high school.
Now, according to most experts, when you're stressed, you activate your fight or flight response. But the latest research seems to indicate that men and women respond differently under stress and women may not experience the fight or flight response in quite the same way that men do. How my parents dealt with my difficulties in high school will demonstrate exactly how these differences play out in real life.
First, let's review what we know about fight or flight: This evolutionary response to stress explains a lot of the physical changes that occur in our bodies whenever we feel threatened or stressed. In prehistoric times that threat was likely to come in the form of a predator or an encounter with a warring tribe. In modern times that threat might come in the form of a rude remark, an angry boss or a traffic jam on the way to work. These modern day threats don't cause us any physical harm, but we react to them as if they do.
When the fight or flight response kicks in - whether the threat is real or imagined - your blood pressure spikes, your heart rate increases, your mouth dries up, your muscles get tense and your hands feel cold and clammy. If you've ever sat waiting for a job interview and noticed how cold your hands got, or how desperately you needed a glass of water, or how tense your muscles felt, these were all signs that the fight or flight response had kicked in.
But there's new research, conducted by Dr. Shelley Taylor of UCLA, that suggests that women don't always activate the fight or flight response. (Or, more accurately, they don't activate it in the same way as men.) Her studies have shown that the females in many different species, including ours, tend to bond together when stressed and figure out how to keep the offspring safe. She calls this female response to stress: The Tend and Befriend Response.
According to a recent article in Psychology Today, Dr. Taylor and her colleagues "reasoned that the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support."
As Dr. Taylor points out, since most of the research on fight or flight was conducted on men back in the male-dominated world of the 1950's nobody ever thought to check to see if the response was the same for women. And men, like my father, tend to deal with stress by fighting or fleeing. And women, like my mother, sometimes deal with stress by trying to hold the family together: in other words, she would almost always tend and befriend.
It's interesting that this is literally what happened to my father, my mother and me, while I was nearly flunking out of high school. I would get into fiery arguments about my grades or other minor infractions with my father (fight), and then he and I would basically just stop talking to each other for a few weeks (fleeing) and eventually my mother would step in to comfort me and then figure out how to resolve the dispute. (Tend and befriend.)
She would say things to me like "your father (who commuted by train into NY City every day) really loves you dear, but you've got to pick him up on time at the train station when he loans you his car for the day. "
"Yeah Mom," I would respond, "I appreciate the fact that he lets me use the car, but you should have heard the things he said to me yesterday when I picked him up. And I was only five minutes late."
"I understand honey, but why don't you just apologize to him and the whole thing will be over."
"Do I have to?"
"Yes, you have to."
And here you have a perfect example of the difference between how men handle a stressful situation, and how women do, especially when it comes to relationships. My father got much more relaxed after he retired (and didn't have to commute anymore) and seemed like an entirely different person. But whenever that old temper of his re-emerged, my mother was always there to pull the family back together and patch things up or tend and befriend.
And one final frightening bit of anecdotal evidence that seems to confirm how men respond differently under stress: Think about the all the violent rampages that have occurred over the last thirty years - from Columbine to Virginia Tech. In all those terrible tragedies, I've never once heard of a woman going on a rampage. It's always a man.