The tend and befriend theory states that during times of extreme stress, humans, particularly females, will turn to tending to their young and bonding with others. This theory offers an alternative to the fight-or-flight response. While fight-or-flight is responsible for the physical reactions to stress, tend and befriend explains social reactions.
The Biology Of Stress
The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is the system that sets off the stress response. When faced with a stressful situation, this system triggers the body to release adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. Cortisol is a powerful part of the fight-or-flight response and can aid in survival. However, if stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels can remain high and lead to many significant health problems.1
The History of Stress
The most popular theory on stress response is the fight or flight theory, which was first introduced by Walter Cannon in the early 1900s. Fight or flight explains that when faced with an extreme stressor, humans will either lash out in a fight response or run away in a flight response. These actions happen almost instantly before the mind even has a chance to think through options cognitively.3
Before the fight or flight theory, in 1884, William James and Carl Lange proposed their Theory of Emotion, stating that emotional responses happen only after physical responses. In the late 1920s, Walter Cannon and Philip Bard proposed their Emergency Theory, stating that emotions and physical nervous system responses happen at the same time. In 1962, Schachter and Singer developed their Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, which explains that when humans experience an emotion, they look for clues in the environment to explain it after the fact.2
What Is the Tend & Befriend Response?
The tend and befriend theory maintains that people can have bonding and caregiving responses to stress. It was developed by Shelley E. Taylor in 2000 because she noticed that the fight or flight theory had explained the physiological response to stress, but it did not address social and relational behaviors.
How Gender Impacts the Tend & Befriend Response
Shelly Taylor believes that females are more likely than males to have a tend and befriend response to stress due to the role of oxytocin. The presence of estrogen enhances oxytocin and is sometimes called the “cuddle hormone”, known to be involved in bonding and relationships.
In hunter-gatherer societies, males were believed to be primarily responsible for hunting and protection, while females tended to the young and gathered food from grains and plants. From an evolutionary standpoint, females are thought to be more focused on relationships and community building than males. It makes sense that females would turn toward others for support in time or stress.
Men are more prone to aggression when feeling stressed. One possible explanation is that men may shy away from vulnerable emotions and mask them with aggression. However, males are capable of having a tend and befriend response, and would benefit from the community building and nervous system advantages as much as women.
Tend & Befriend Vs. Fight or Flight
Both the fight or flight and tend and befriend responses are unconscious reactions to stress triggered by the nervous system. In fight or flight, a surge of adrenaline and norepinephrine drives humans to attack, fight, or run away as quickly as possible. In tend and befriend, a surge of oxytocin triggers a desire to nurture, care for and bond with others.
According to Taylor, tend and befriend is a healthier stress response. Since it involves less of an onslaught of stress hormones, it is not as harmful to the body. Fight or flight is excellent in an emergency but is found to lead to nervous system dysregulation. This can contribute to the development of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.4
The Importance of a Tend & Befriend Support System
The tend and befriend theory shows us how important a social support system is, especially in times of stress. A secure attachment as opposed to an avoidant attachment style increases the likelihood of having a tend and befriend response. Secure attachment is a healthy pattern of bonding with others and building close relationships that comes from a healthy attachment to caregivers in childhood.
Here are eleven ways to strengthen your tend and befriend support system:
1. Increase Communication
Communicating one’s needs clearly, rather than waiting for others to know their needs intuitively, is an important way to strengthen a person’s social support system. Allowing others to be there for someone when they are going through a hard time can deepen relationships. Asking for help can be a great way to strengthen bonds and increase support.
2. Find a Hobby
Finding an enjoyable hobby has multiple benefits. It can help a person to meet like-minded people and build a support system. Working on a hobby can be calming and grounding, and it can be a wonderful source of creativity and fun!
3. Attend Group Therapy
Group therapy is another effective way to help strengthen a person’s social support system. Meeting other people who have experienced similar stresses makes a person feel more supported and understood, as they realize that they are not alone in their experiences. This also provides an opportunity to be there for others, which is a healthy coping mechanism.
4. Find an Individual Therapist
An individual therapist can also help with building a support system. Talking with a skilled therapist can help a person feel less alone and help them identify ways to strengthen relationships. Identifying and working on adult attachment disorder can help a person understand and overcome unhealthy relationship patterns and move toward healthier support.
There are many ways to find a therapist, including asking friends or a medical professional or seeking online therapy options. An online therapist directory can be a helpful tool for locating a provider.
5. Get Active
Not only does exercise have multiple mental health benefits, but engaging in an active group activity can be an easy way to meet new people and strengthen one’s support system.5 Alternatively, meeting a friend for a walk is a great way to strengthen an old relationship.
6. Try Meditation
Meditation is a great way to ground yourself and calm the nervous system. Meditation groups and classes are available and can help someone build healthy relationships based on common interests.
7. Adopt a Pet
Not only are pets great companions, but they can also be a way to meet others. Adopting a pet from a local shelter is a great way to meet other pet lovers. Events and meet-ups where pet owners can meet and mingle are another way to meet people and build support.
Volunteering gives back to one’s community and can be a great way to make new friends. Look for volunteer opportunities that align with your interests and skills.
9. Take a Class
Taking a class can also lead to an increase in one’s support system while learning new skills or knowledge. This could be taking a cooking class, learning a new language or taking on a new craft like knitting. The local rec center or community college is a good place to start for ideas.
10. Be Patient With Yourself
Meeting new people and building community and support takes time! Give yourself credit for putting yourself out there and trying new things, and don’t give up.
In My Experience
In my experience as a trauma therapist, the tend-and-befriend response is a healthy way to handle stressful situations. By coming together with other community members, one can receive and provide support while tending to the most vulnerable. This stress response offers a way to cope while also strengthening relationships. While the literature does refer to this being a more common response in females, I believe it could be a helpful coping skill for people of any gender. Anytime a client comes to me for trauma treatment, I ask about their current support system and work with them to strengthen social support.