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Friendships between women good for health

septembre 2003

par Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA (University of California - Los Angeles) 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.

Oxytocin, a "convivial" hormone

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 Bio-behavioral
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 released 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

Not having close friends as detrimental as smoking or extra weight.

The 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 confidantes 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
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.

Mis en ligne sur Sisyphe le 28 septembre 2003.

Gale Berkowitz

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