Think dealing with stress has to be difficult? Think again!
For women, stress can come from a variety of daily experiences, such as: pressure at work, taking care of young children, relationship conflicts, etc. Stress can also come from unexpected events such as a crisis with your child, pregnancy loss, inability to get pregnant, or loss of a loved one.
How we cope with stress is different depending on the individual. The “fight or flight” model includes responses such as an aggressive reaction to stress (fight) or avoidance of stress (flight). An aggressive coping reaction might be to yell at your children, or get angry with yourself, while an avoidance mechanism might be to resort to substance abuse or social withdrawal. Although they are common reactions, not everyone will fight or flee in response to stress.
Research in Attachment Theory and Stress
New research suggests that there may be some gender differences in responding to stress, as the “tend and befriend” reaction seems to be particularly strong in women.
The biological basis for these behaviors seems to be the hormone, oxytocin. Production of oxytocin is triggered at times of stress and prompts affiliative behaviors, such as maternal tending and social contact with peers. Oxytocin is also the underlying factor in mother-infant attachment. Affiliation under stress may lead someone to protect children (tending) or seek social contact for his/her own protection (befriending). These social responses tend to reduce biological stress responses by lowering heart rate and blood pressure and reducing the production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
This is not surprising since, throughout evolution, women have been involved in pregnancy and nursing and have had a greater role in the care of young children. High maternal investments have selectively affected female stress responses to maximize the survival of women and their children.
Fight or flight responses to stress during pregnancy may put women and their young children in danger. Therefore, women are more likely to create, maintain, and utilize social groups, especially with other women, in order to cope with stressful conditions.
Socialize to Reduce Stress and Live Better
The importance of surrounding yourself with people who genuinely care about you is not new. What is new is the research confirming that good social support protects pregnant women from having low birth-weight babies;, getting depressed, and can improve recovery during bereavement. Social support can also improve recovery time from medical illness.
Studies also show that people who have rich social networks tend to live longer and be healthier. Research suggests that reduction of stress in females, resulting from seeking connection with others, may help explain why women outlive men. According to studies, the more friends a woman has, the healthier and happier she tends to be. These findings were so significant that researchers from the Nurse’s Health Study at Harvard Medical School concluded that not having close friends is as detrimental to women’s health as smoking or being overweight.
Build Social Networks
Given the research, taking time to build a social support network is a wise investment, not only in your mental well-being, but also in your physical health and longevity.
Spending time with friends is not only fun and feels great, but it is also a way of coping with stress. Don’t let your busy work, family, or home schedule prevent you from making time to visit with friends. The more quality and supportive relationships you have, the better. Make an effort to make more friends, if you need them, or to improve the relationships you already have.
You may also consider joining a support group for women who have similar life experiences. Find an infertility support group, a pregnancy loss group, a mother-baby group, a “moms of pre-schoolers” group, etc. Knowing that you are not the only one who struggles with stress or depression can be reassuring.
Remember that the goal of building your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. Be aware of relationships that seem to drain your energy. For example, avoid spending too much time with someone who is constantly negative and critical. Similarly, steer clear of people involved in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse.
If you feel alone and constantly stressed-out, seek professional help. Counseling can help you identify and mobilize positive supportive relationships in your life.
If you want help in identifying and managing your stressors, call me at (281)267-1742 for a FREE ten-minute consultation.