UCLA STUDY ON FRIENDSHIP AMONG WOMEN By Gale Berkowitz
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
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
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).
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 them right to the back burner. That's really a mistake because
women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one
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.