What is the "tend-and-befriend" theory and why is it important?
Social support can be a vital component of our lives, often contributing to our success, health, and safety. This proclivity for helping one another is at the heart of the tend-and-befriend theory, an important behavioral theory that refers to the impulse to care for one’s children and connect with others in response to stress.
The tend-and-befriend theory can be thought of as an addition to the fight-or-flight theory, the primary mechanism by which humans are thought to react to stressful situations. A relatively recent concept, tend-and-befriend helps explain why some people, often women, group together and provide care for one another in response to stress. Below, we’re going to cover the tend-and-befriend response, its implications regarding human behavior, and how it might show up in your life.
Definition of tend-and-befriend
Tend-and-befriend refers to a response that some people exhibit during stressful circumstances. The “tend” part of the term refers to nurturing one’s children, while the “befriend” part refers to seeking social support.
The tend-and-befriend theory was first put forth by Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist at UCLA, based on her observations of human behavior. Taylor wanted to address gaps in behavioral research that struggled to explain the social component of stress responses often exhibited by humans, especially women. Research on stress has primarily centered around the fight-or-flight response, which posits that humans developed heightened reactions to stress based on how our ancestors responded to stressful situations: by fighting or fleeing.
But the fight-or-flight response seems to fall short when explaining why some people group together and provide care for each other during times of stress, instead of removing themselves from the situation or displaying aggression. Aside from the antecedent behavior consequence model, tend-and-befriend is a response that helps explain that behavior.
How the theory developed
The fight-or-flight response was first described by Walter Cannon in the 1900s. Cannon was able to draw a line from stressful or threatening situations to reactions in the sympathetic nervous system, specifically those related to the release of adrenaline and norepinephrine.
Over time, an evolutionary basis of the fight-or-flight theory was put forth—the idea being that animals had to respond to tense situations quickly, so they adapted by developing physiological responses that would help them survive.
While the fight-or-flight theory has persisted as the dominant explanation for why we respond to stress the way we do, studies continued to show that many people, particularly women, do not always respond to stress with aggression or the desire to escape from the situation. Research suggested that women often connect with others as a way of coping with stress; but there was no cohesive explanation as to why this would occur.
This is where Taylor’s tend-and-befriend theory came in. After researching extensively different reactions to stress and why women’s responses often departed from the fight-or-flight model, Taylor developed the tend-and-befriend model to help fill the gap.
Why the tend-and-befriend response occurs
Researchers discovered that, much like with the fight-or-flight response, certain hormones have an impact on their responses to stress. For example, the hormone oxytocin, which is often released when women provide care, can help promote calmness and ease the mental and physical effects of stress. In addition, the response is thought to be facilitated by the opioid system, which is part of the nervous system.
It’s important to note that the tend-and-befriend response is not only present in women. While women may exhibit this reaction to distress more frequently, people of all genders produce oxytocin and can also seek social support as a response to stress.
Implications of the theory
An important implication of the tend-and-befriend theory has to do with physical and social health differences between the sexes. Researchers believe that differing stress responses could help explain why women tend to live longer than men. Because social support is linked to improved mental health and increased immune system function, it is thought to be a beneficial coping mechanism. While once helpful, the fight-or-flight response that often dominates men’s reaction to stress can produce a heightened physiological state and potentially damaging symptoms.
Understanding the stress response isn't just interesting and useful from an evolutionary standpoint, although it has played a significant role in survival for humans and animals. From a modern standpoint, even if women don't have to defend their children from life-threatening situations very often, in many cases, it's still their instinct to tend to their children and seek out social support when they are under stress. Taylor has posited that the production of the tend-and-befriend response in modern times can have lasting positive effects on both women and their kids, as it can help teach children how to respond to stress in healthy ways.
The importance of social support
Research supporting the tend-and-befriend theory can be added to a growing body of evidence that points to the importance of a strong social circle, especially in times of stress. If you think that your response to stress is producing mental or physical health concerns, consider seeking help.
Studies show that online therapy can be as effective as in-person treatment when helping individuals cope with mental health concerns that may arise out of unhealthy stress responses, such anxiety and depression. The results of one such study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, show that approximately 74% of online therapy participants experienced improved symptoms of anxiety and depression after six weeks of video-based cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals reframe negative thought patterns that may be underlying maladaptive emotions and behaviors, such as those related to unhealthy stress responses.
If you’d like help managing stress or related mental health challenges, consider reaching out to a therapist online. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp can provide you with mental health care remotely, so you won’t have to deal with potentially stressful situations like commuting to an office. You’ll also have the option of communicating with your therapist outside of sessions. If you forgot to mention something during therapy, or you’d like clarification regarding a specific stress-management technique, you can send your therapist a message, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they’re able. A licensed therapist can provide you with the care and support you deserve when it comes to stress-related mental health concerns. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought help for similar challenges.
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