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Social Support and Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend Theory

As you walk down the sidewalk, an enormous dog starts running at you. What’s your body’s response? You know this one… “fight or flight”! It’s so catchy that it has to be true. We’re all familiar with the classic premise: in a stressful situation, our biological systems get jacked up[1]For the more detail-oriented, we’re talking about the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis and corresponding effects on norepinephrine and epinephrine. in a way that prepares us to fight (“Take down the dog!”) or flee (“Outrun the dog!”).

But are these our only options for dealing with stress? Fight it or avoid it? A basic premise in social psychology is that we are social beings; social connections are crucial to our survival.

Social isolation, for example, is a strong predictor of health problems and early mortality, according to several studies. Given this, research by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues suggest another resource for dealing with stress: social relationships.

baby-821625_640-resizeYou can think about it evolutionarily[2]Spell check is telling me this isn’t a word, but I’m going with it.: if fighting and fleeing are the only responses to threat, what about the baby you’re carrying when the dog runs at you? (By the way, you’re holding a baby in the scenario I outlined earlier. I forgot to mention that).

If you fight the dog, you leave the baby vulnerable, and if you run away, you’re either neglecting the baby or the baby’s slowing you down. In other, more dog-free scenarios, the logic is the same. When something is stressing you out, it would make sense for you to cope with the stress in a way that doesn’t isolate you from other people.

To make this all a little simpler, according to “Tend and Befriend Theory,” people often respond to stress by tending to offspring and affiliating with others.

How Hunger and Social Relationships Are The Same

If you think about how hunger works, there’s a biological system in place that monitors your current state. If your levels get too low, your brain kicks in with a “You’re hungry–look for food” message. Then you’re on alert for food, you eat food, and your levels go back to where they need to be.

According to Tend and Befriend, we also have a drive for social connection. Our brains monitor our levels of social contact, and when those levels get low, the message goes out: “Seek social support!” Once we get the message and find that social contact, our levels go back to where they should be.

The Biology of Our Social Alert System

To keep the hunger comparison going, your tummy rumbling isn’t the result of a little guy in your brain who’s shouting “You’re hungry!”[3]cf. Inside Out. There’s a system of chemicals that are systematically released in your body, according to all sorts of sophisticated biological processes.

In the same way, the signaling system that urges us to seek social connections depends on chemicals released in our bodies. One widely studied example is oxytocin[4]The research also suggests a special role for opioids in this process, but I’ll focus on oxytocin in this article., which is released in response to a bunch of stressful events and pushes us to be with other people.

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For instance, one study showed that women whose state of social relationships had dipped below optimal levels (e.g., they hadn’t talked to their friends and family much) had high oxytocin levels. Although those results come from correlations, other research with prairie voles has shown that social isolation causes increases in oxytocin.

So we know that oxytocin is released when our brain notices we aren’t getting the social contact we need, but the key is that having so much oxytocin around pushes us to make those social connections.  In studies that inject extra oxytocin into animals, the animals respond with more affiliation and social behavior.

lonelyThe Power of Social Support

“So I want to be around my friend when I’m stressed…why?”

I mentioned earlier that feeling isolated and lonely is a bummer and leaves people vulnerable to all sorts of negative things. Don’t believe me? Ask leading loneliness researcher John Cacioppo. Well, don’t ask him–just watch his TED talk.

When our brains push us to affiliate with others in times of stress, we often end up feeling social support, which is the feeling that other people care about us. This is great because plenty of research has shown how social support helps reduce distress and anxiety when we’re feeling stressed.

Putting it All Together

It seems clear that a powerful human response to stress is seeking social contact and support. The same biological systems that regulate our other needs like hunger and thirst offer insight into how this social system works as well.

One interesting question is whether women are more likely than men to use social responses to stress. Indeed, a lot of the research on these questions has focused exclusively on female participants (human and non-human alike). The evolutionary argument that I provided earlier hints at this being the case. After all, historically speaking, who’s more likely to be holding a baby in the ferocious dog example I opened with?

Given that women would have been more likely to be the ones caring for offspring, the social bond response to stress may have evolved to be especially adaptive for women. Indeed, some research has shown that women are a little more likely than men to use social support as a coping response, but the data show that both men and women commonly use social contact as a stress response, and any gender differences are relatively small.

In terms of using this theory of stress responses, some have suggested how important it is to provide opportunities for social contact to people who have experienced stressful events. Making sure that people have the chance to feel social support might be a powerful way of addressing the potentially damaging effects of major life stressors.

 

Feature Image: “Evstafiev Bosnia Sarajevo Funeral Reaction” by Mikhail Evstafiev –  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. For the more detail-oriented, we’re talking about the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis and corresponding effects on norepinephrine and epinephrine.
2. Spell check is telling me this isn’t a word, but I’m going with it.
3. cf. Inside Out
4. The research also suggests a special role for opioids in this process, but I’ll focus on oxytocin in this article.

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