Stress and Grief: To Fight or Befriend

By Tom Golden

As I watched our local TV news the other day, I was saddened to see a brief clip about a little, seven-year-old boy who had been hit by a car and killed. The tragedy happened not far from the boy’s home. The news cameras focused on the bereaved mother, sitting in her living room, in tears and surrounded by other women who were consoling her.

The next image was of the bereaved father who was by himself, pacing next to the roadside near where the accident had happened. The news anchor explained that the father was trying to understand how this tragedy could have taken place.

This was not the first time I have seen this scenario. After a major loss, the women often move towards a nurturing and intimate connection and the men move towards “doing” something. Why is this such a common scenario? Why would the women gather and nurture one another while the man engaged in some sort of activity?

Shelley E. Taylor, lead researcher and UCLA psychologist, may help us understand these questions. Dr. Taylor has made the important observation that much of the previous research done on stress was done with male subjects. Women had been omitted from the studies due to the researchers’ fears that the women’s monthly hormonal cycles could skew the results. Those studied were almost all men, and this original research found that when stressed, the subjects were likely to do one of two things: either stand and fight, or to retreat.

This became a well known and publicly accepted syndrome that was titled the “Fight or Flight” response.

Dr. Taylor has helped us see that this “fight or flight” syndrome we have heard so much about is true for men, but may not be true for women. Dr. Taylor conducted research on this question that included women and what do you think she found? She found that women, when stressed, rather than resorting to fight or flight do something entirely different, they “tend and befriend.” By “tend and befriend,” she means that under stress women will move to nurture those around them (tend) or will make social connections with those they feel safe (befriend).

“This difference in seeking social support during stressful periods is the principal way men and women differ in their esponse to stress, and it is one of the most basic differences in men’s and women’s behavior,” Taylor said.

Dr. Taylor goes on to explain that there is a physiological component in these findings which seems to be centered around a hormone called oxytocin. “Oxytocin has been studied largely for its role in childbirth, but it is also secreted in both men and women as a response to stress,” she said. “Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer, more relaxed, more social and less anxious. In several animal species, oxytocin leads to maternal behavior and to affiliation.”

Oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle” hormone, has been found to be a “major facilitator of maternal behavior.” Researchers are finding that woman’s estrogen amplifies the effectiveness of the oxytocin while the man’s testosterone hampers and limits the action of this “cuddle” hormone.

Is it nature or nurture? Of course it is both. Men and women get very different messages from our culture about how to act following a loss. Importantly, we are beginning to find that there are also significant physical differences.

This is an important finding on its own but it is especially important to help us understand the ways we choose to grieve following a painful loss. Dr. Taylor’s research helps us to see that women will tend to seek out social contacts following a loss and find solace in being “tended.” The men, on the other hand, find themselves in the midst of “fight or flight” and this will obviously move them towards a stance of either retreating or fighting.

“Fighting” moves men into a sphere where they take some action that helps them connect with the grief. “Flight” is a common reaction where men or women withdraw for a period of time. Pulling back into the cave is a common phrase that captures this potentially healthy maneuver.

Not all men rely solely on fight and flight and not all women rely solely on tend and befriend. We are all a mix of both. Each of us will use both these strategies. The point here is that men will more often seek out an active mode to help them with their loss and women will more often seek out an interactive mode. Sometimes there may be women who choose the action oriented paths and sometimes there will be men who prefer the tend and befriend responses.

When we talk about these differences we want to keep in mind that we can’t lump all men in one pile and all women in another. That just doesn’t work. We are all unique in our path to deal with grief.

Let’s think back to our opening story. The mother was surrounded by other women who supported her in this time of crisis. She was obviously being “tended” and “befriended.” Her women friends stayed close to her and talked, stroked, and nurtured. All of this in harmony with the basic ideas of tend and befriend. The father, on the other hand, was out pacing near the street.

Why? Could he have been trying to bring some understanding to this devastatingly stressful event by piecing together bits of data and watching the traffic flow to give him some understanding about how this tragedy could have happened? Could it be that understanding the tragic event became his focus and his “fight” at that time?

Behaviors like this bereaved father’s are often misunderstood and mislabeled as not really grieving. We are living in a culture that disdains grief. This makes grieving tough for men or women. The movement of men and women to an active path in dealing with their grief, like this fathers, has been termed the “Masculine Side of Healing.”

Do you ever use an active path in healing from a loss?

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