Tend and Befriend: The Brain-Savvy Way That Women Respond to Stress
Workplace stress is costly. It can also be deadly. It is particularly hazardous for women who often have the additional stress of juggling their work life sandwiched between duties of parenting and caring for elderly parents. While optimal levels of stress motivate us to perform at our best, too much stress has negative consequences on our work performance, physical health and mental well-being.
Our stress response is an automatic, physiological reaction to what our brain perceives as a threatening situation. While women typically report higher levels of workplace stress, they also have an automatic stress response that differs from men and can be more effective in managing stress. You are probably familiar with fight, flight or freeze as a threat response; but you may be surprised to learn that women have an additional automatic stress response labeled tend and befriend.
Tend and befriend is built on the brain’s attachment and affiliation circuitry and leads us to care for others and strengthen social ties. It isn’t surprising to find that women typically respond to stress through social connections – such as talking to other people - while men are more likely to rely on exercise or legitimized forms of competition and aggression to deal with stress.
The American Psychological Association said this tend and befriend paradigm “counteracts the metabolic activity associated with the traditional fight-or-flight stress response -- increased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels -- and leads to nurturing and affiliative behavior.”
This gender difference is backed by science as a study published in the Journal BioEssays found that the “SRY gene, which is located on the Y chromosome and directs male development, may promote aggression and other traditionally male behavioral traits, resulting in the fight-or-flight reaction to stress.”
Despite the fact that men and women are wired differently, we believe everyone -- especially men -- can benefit from expanding their stress response repertoire to include tend and befriend techniques. This is particularly important for entrepreneurs as the entrepreneurial path can be lonely. Having a well-established group of advisors and trusted friends to talk to is very important as social connections can be instrumental in providing a stress relief outlet. Establishing a network -- your own “kitchen cabinet” -- may require an investment of time and energy, but the benefit is that you can learn from others how to manage stressful situations and perhaps avoid unpleasant situations all together.
One entrepreneur recently gave some advice to others on how to make being your own boss less isolating. He had some great suggestions including to join mentoring groups and Facebook communities for local entrepreneurs and attend events and meetups. Now is the time to think about who you have been wanting to add to your kitchen cabinet. Equally important is to consider what relationships are no longer serving you - those that you are “tending” because of a misplaced sense of obligation.
As an entrepreneur you are the primary architect of your firm’s culture and the blueprint for that culture is written in the norms, the unwritten rules of the game that shape behavior. Research conducted at Google suggests that norms that support psychological safety -- our ability to bring our whole person to work and be understood not just for what we do, but for who we are -- were the key to performance. Women are typically more in tune with the interpersonal needs of their friends and colleagues, but it is important for everyone to ensure that there is equal focus on providing compassion and requiring accountability at work. Ask yourself, “How much time do you make for people to share what is happening in their personal lives? Do you do “check ins” that allow for colleagues to voice their concerns without fear of being labeled poor performers?
Sometimes it pays to fight for what is right, but often regrouping and tending and befriending with others is the more effective route to take. Shifting the way you approach and deal with stress can build personal resilience. And being more conscious about your subconscious stress response can lead to a better work experience.
Terri D. Egan, PhD, is an associate professor of applied behavioral science at the Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. Suzanne Lahl, MSOD, is a supporting faculty member at Pepperdine. They are co-founders of SyncUp Leadership Group, a leadership and organization development consulting firm.