Friendships Among Women Reduce Stress

UCLA Study on Friendship Among Women
by Gale Berkowitz

An alternative to fight or flight. A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down.

Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible, explains Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors. It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight; In fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is release as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, she adds, seems to enhance it.

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic “aha” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded, says Dr. Klein. When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake: The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. There’s no doubt, says Dr. Klein, that friends are helping us live longer.

In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

And that’s not all. When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate. Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships (Three Rivers Press, 1998). The following paragraph is, in my opinion, very, very true and something all women should be aware of and NOT put our female friends on the back burners.

Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women, explains Dr. Josselson. We push the m right to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women. It’s a very healing experience.

©2002 Gale Berkowitz

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Behaviorial Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychol Rev, 107(3):41-429. (Full text of article in PDF format)

Geary DC, Flinn MV. Sex differences in behavioral and hormonal response to social threat: commentary on Taylor et al. Psychol Rev 2002 Oct;109(4):745-50; discussion 751-3

Cousino Klein L, Corwin EJ. Seeing the unexpected: how sex differences in stress responses may provide a new perspective on the manifestation of psychiatric disorders. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2002 Dec;4(6):441-8.

Note:  This article appears in several places on the internet. We would like to credit the author more fully but have been unable to locate any recent biographical details or reference to the original article.  We welcome more information about the original source to give proper credit to the author, Gale Berkowitz.

12 Principles of Communication

  1. Be a quiet listener and don’t answer until the other has finished talking. If you would like an amusing exercise, sit quietly in a public restaurant and listen to the people communicate.  Often there are two people engaged in talking and nobody involved in listening. (Proverbs 18:13; James 1:19)
  2. Be slow to speak. Think first.  don’t be hasty in your words.  It has been said, “Make sure the brain is actively in gear before the mouth is engaged.”  Speak in such a way that the other person can understand and accept what is being said.  (Proverbs 15:23, 21:23, 29:20)
  3. Don’t use silence to frustrate the other person. Explain the reasons for your non-response:  that you are considering, you need time to think about it, or you are having difficulty with your emotions and you don’t want to speak back in wrath. (Ecclesiastes 3:7; James 1:19)
  4. Let your speech be true but always in love. Don’t exaggerate to make a point, don’t withhold information to deceive. (Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 3:9)
  5. Don’t get involved in destructive quarrels. It is possible to disagree without destroying your spouse.  There is a way that fighting and disagreement can build a relationship instead of destroying it.  (Proverbs 17:14; 20:3, Romans 13:13; Ephesians 4:31)
  6. Anger is a feeling and anger is an action. We cannot control the emotion of anger but we can control the action of anger.  (Proverbs 14:29, 15:1, 25:15, 29:11; Ephesians 4:26, 31)
  7. When you sense your error be a big enough person to admit it and ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, “I’m sorry” when sincerely said will immediately resolve a crisis.  (James 5:16)
  8. When someone asks your forgiveness, tell them you forgive them and make sure it’s forgotten and never brought up again.  (proverbs 17:9; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8)
  9. Don’t nag. After you have given your message, request feedback.  (Proverbs 10:19, 17:9)
  10. Don’t blame or criticize the other, rather encourage them and edify them.  (Romans 14:13; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  11. If someone is angrily criticizing you or verbally attacking you, don’t rise to the defense in the same manner.  (Romans 12:17, 21; 1 Peter 2:23, 3:9)
  12. The goal of communication is understanding, not agreement.  Make allowances for unique differences.  Be concerned about their interests.  What are they saying?  Why are they saying it?  When you understand those things, then communication has taken place, not when you have total agreement of each others opinions. (Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:1-4)

Negative Body Image & Bulimia – A Story of Recovery and Healing

Brenda Piazza, Transitional Coach & Support Group Facilitator

Testimony by Brenda Piazza, Transitional Coach

The following is a testimony of Brenda’s battle with negative body image and bulimia and her inspirational story of healing and recovery.

I was born into a traditional family with a father, mother and 2 older sisters. The traditional family lasted for the first 3 years of my life only. In 1969, my middle sister was accidentally killed by an automobile when I was 3 and she was 4. She died instantly. We lived on a lane with 3 homes and both older sisters wanted to run alongside the car as we coasted back to the house after getting the mail. My middle sister’s shoe lace was untied and the spokes of the wheel pulled her under. It was a freak accident. My older sister blamed herself because she thought she pushed her and my father blamed my mother because she was driving the car. I did not blame anyone, but I just wanted my family back.

I remember right after the accident, I was sitting on my neighbor’s lap and I was asking for my parents. She was telling me, they would be back and not to worry about it. She also told me not to talk about, that it would all go away. At age 3, I learned how to bury feelings and not share them with anyone. To always put up a good front and everything would be fine. I also learned later in life that between the ages of 3-5, our boundaries of how we react to situations and handle situations are formed. Based on experience, this is so true for me.

My dad spent many nights over the next 9 years drinking, not coming home for days at a time, and sleeping with other women. He was afraid to lose more of his children and just didn’t want to get close to us. My parents eventually divorced when I was 12. I do not remember much from the age of 3 to 12. My mom said I spent a lot of time in my room reading and not having a lot of friends. I was extremely shy and withdrawn.

I craved love from both of my parents every day but didn’t know how to ask for it or get it. The wall created around my heart at age 3 was firmly in place. I thought something must be wrong with me because I didn’t feel loved and withdrew further into myself. Every time I did see my dad over the years, his first comment out of his mouth was always, “looks like you have gained weight.” He would say that to my sister and I both even though we didn’t gain weight. My reaction was always “well something must be wrong with me or he would love me. I will lose weight then he will tell me he loves me. “

After my parents divorced, the house was sold and my mom and older sister moved from a very influential neighborhood to a one bedroom apartment 30 minutes away. I had to attend a new high school at age 15 and was terrified. I was shy, a freshman, and had no friends. I started dieting in high school because I wanted my parents to love me and I wanted friends to like me. I felt that my problems would be gone if I lost the weight. My mom and I joined Weight Watchers. I bought the Richard Simmons workout tapes and worked out every evening. I actually lost too much weight and was anemic. After I graduated from high school, my mom remarried when I was 17 in Lake Tahoe and I remember that I could not get warm. I was freezing all the time because I was anemic. But that didn’t stop me from working out and eating less. I still did not have many friends and I still did not get the love I needed.

My mom’s new husband lived 5 hours away so my mom set me up with my own apartment at age 17. I was still very shy and insecure about who I was. I remember the one bedroom apartment was very dark because of all the trees around it and I felt very alone and abandoned. My sister had moved in with her boyfriend my then. I first learned about bulimia from my sister. Her best friend in high school was bulimic but appeared to be loved by her family and friends. So I went to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor one night, ate a large sundae and threw it up. I realized that I had a new way to lose weight yet could still eat whatever I wanted. I would get the love I craved now and fill the hole in my heart at the same time by being thin. Boy, was I wrong!

Since dieting did not seem to bring the love I needed from others, I then got into bodybuilding at the age of 18. If I won contests, then I know others would tell me they loved me and all would be great. I continued to be bulimic throughout the body building, dieting and contests for 6 more years. During this time, I met my future husband (ex-husband now). Throughout the time I was married, he did not know that I was bulimic. I continued the bulimia and over-exercising for 8 years. Even though I was married, I still craved love. We dated for 5 years then married to combine our incomes and buy a house together. I know he loved me deeply but I never allowed myself to give in to someone that much because I wanted to maintain control over my life (and my bulimia).

When I was 27 years old, I stopped the bulimia. I found another outlet that would assist in keeping my weight down and bring the love I craved if I was thin enough. I started using crystal meth. It took away the appetite for food. This continued for about one year. I remember the weekend I stopped using crystal meth was a fishing weekend that my husband had with his dad and brother. I was left alone at the house for 3 straight days and did nothing but meth throughout those 3 days. It numbed the void in my heart. But I grew very paranoid over the weekend, thought people were trying to break into the house, and I just broke down and wept. When my husband got home that evening, I confessed what I had done and vowed never to do it again. And I didn’t. Praise God!

Because of so much secrecy in my life, my husband looked for assurance and love from someone else outside the marriage. He met someone, fell in love, and asked me for a divorced when I was 32. I actually felt relieved because I got back complete control of my life back—not knowing at that time because I wasn’t a Christian yet that I was never in control – only God is in control.

Since I was with my ex-husband and married at an early age (from 19 to 32), I felt like I missed the partying life so after the divorce, I went out almost every night for 2 years drinking a lot. This also numbed the void in my heart. I started to think that if I found true love in a bar, ridiculous huh, then I would be happy. So I dated a lot of men I met in bars but I never let them know the real me. I always kept the wall up around my heart. No one would ever get into my heart deep enough to hurt me like my father did. Everyone at work, family, and friends thought things were going really well for me. But at night, I hid behind an alcohol cloud and I was hurting and felt unloved but didn’t know how to reach out to anyone. The wall remained around my heart and I never felt good enough.

Throughout my older years, I thought that if only I was smart enough, then others would love me. So I got the 4 year bachelors degree during my marriage and a master’s degree after I was married. After I hung the certificates on the wall, nothing changed. I still craved love from others and still felt like I was not enough.

I started a journey of introspection and self-reflection at the age of 35. I bought a lot of self-help books, life coaching, and a student edition bible and started reading everything I could get my hands on to figure out what was wrong with me. I accepted the Lord into my life at age 38 while attending Horizon for 4 weeks to see if I “liked it”. I was a “Christer” prior to that which means I attended services at Catholic mass for Christmas and Easter only. I came forward when Mike McIntosh said, “leave your cares at Jesus feet and come forward to accept His love as Your Father in Heaven. Man will always let you down but Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you.” My Father showed His love for me. Praise God.

I was then able to let down my guard, then others into my heart and begin the complete recovery process of identifying triggers, and learned how to express emotion though the bible, therapy and pushing myself through those uncomfortable situations until they became comfortable. I know now that I am loved by family and friends. The void in my heart has been filled by Jesus and I am a complete and loved daughter of His.

I am reaching out to you now. I do not want you to take the long journey I took to heal from eating disorders and body image issues and feelings of being unlovable, not enough and hurt.

If you are interested in participating in a confidential support group that shares your issues and whose heart is to lift you up and encourage you to heal from the past, please contact us for more information.

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