Women are much more sociable in the way they cope with stress, says Shelley E. Taylor, author of ” The Tending Instinct ” and a social neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. ” Men are more likely to deal with stress with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, with aggression or withdrawal .”

But aggression and withdrawal come at a physiological cost, and friendship provides comfort that mitigates the harmful effects of stress, Taylor says. That difference alone contributes to the gender difference in longevity.

Companions and friends to release stress

Women’s trust in friends, and the benefits they see in those friendships, crosses ethnic, economic, and age lines.

Friendships profoundly affect the health of both genders, say the researchers. In general, people who live alone tend to get sick more often, and even die earlier than people who are in relationships with loved ones and friends.

Researchers attribute the difference to women’s greater reliance on friendships outside of marriage. These friendships make women’s support networks wider, deeper, and more resilient than men’s .

” When a romantic relationship ends, a woman still has other sources of intimacy, her friends, and that provides her with another source of support, ” says Beverley Fehr of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, author of an academic study of friendship titled ” Friendship processes ”.

The oxytocin effect

Researchers believe that the hormone oxytocin is, for women especially, the elixir of friendship and, by extension, of health.

The hormone made the news a few weeks after a study published in the journal Nature demonstrated its power to promote wellness when sprayed into the nostrils of test subjects. However, the hormone is part of the normal makeup of the human body and has a valuable purpose. [¹]

Present in both men and women, oxytocin levels increase in women after childbirth and during lactation. Levels also rise in times of isolation and stress. And when the hormone interacts with estrogen, studies show, it prompts women to seek the company of others. [²]

It can be thought of as a ‘social thermostat’ that keeps track of how well women’s social supports are going. When the thermostat is low, women tend to reach out to others. Then the oxytocin levels rise again, and with that prolonged exposure there is a distinctive “soothing and warming” effect , something often seen among female colleagues and friends.

By pushing women to build support networks, oxytocin has a powerful indirect effect on health.

At least 22 studies have shown that having social support lowers the blood pressure-accelerating responses that humans and other social animals have to stress and the hormones it sends out. [³]

When oxytocin levels are high, stress reactions are reduced and stress is less likely to cause the kind of damage that can lead to chronic diseases like heart disease and metabolic disorders. When oxytocin levels are high, humans and other social animals have also been shown to heal faster and better from wounds .

Researchers from Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University have shown that people who report strong social support have stronger immune systems and are less likely to succumb to infectious diseases. Kiecolt-Glaser, who studies friendship and health, calls social support ” the most reliable psychological indicator ” of immune response ever found. [ 4 ]

There is even evidence that the broader network of friends and support that women tend to have could protect against the effects of dementia .

Friendship and relationship are not always synonymous

But do women’s friendships promote health in unique ways? Do women get benefits from friends that cannot be obtained from their partner or husband?

In fact, for women, there is evidence that a male partner, in times of stress, can make things worse, although this is too generalizing, since partners are unique and not all work the same.

In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 1995, German researchers found that when subjects were assigned a stressful task, in this case, preparing a speech, the men who joined their partner during the preparation showed levels of much lower stress than those without such support. For women, it was a different story. When the women preparing the speeches joined their partners, their stress hormones increased. [ 5 ]

UCLA’s Taylor surmises that findings like this could reflect a big difference between the way men and women provide support. Men’s support of a friend or partner tends to take the form of advice, she says. Support from women more often comes in more vague forms of encouragement, validation, and acceptance. That, in turn, could allow a woman to find her own solution to a problem, with less pressure to meet her advisor’s expectations.

Kiecolt-Glaser adds that differences in the way men and women converse can make big differences in their social supports.

“Women tend to talk about feelings, while men tend to talk about events,” she says.

Friends and good friendship

When we are in a true friendship, the one that allows us to show who we really are, to feel free to share what worries us, in which we know that whoever listens to us does not have double intentions and that they are just as open as we are to tell them what they are. It happens, it is something that vitalizes, it can greatly modify our perception of a situation and reduce stress and tension.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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