What Is the Tend-and-Befriend Response?

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What is the tend-and-befriend response? What is the evolutionary benefit of the tend-and-befriend response to danger?

The tend-and-befriend response is an instinctual stress response triggered by a perception of threat to one’s loved ones. Evolutionary psychology suggests that the tend-and-friend response is a typical female response, mediated by the release of hormones that promote vigilance and attachment.

Here’s how the tend-and-friend response works on the hormonal level.

Tend-and-Befriend Response 

The tend-and-befriend response occurs when you perceive that a person or community you care about needs help. For example, you’re concerned for the mental health of a friend as they process a break-up, so you drive an hour through the night to comfort them in person. Likewise, this response can be triggered by your own need for support. This instinct for connection is driven by the following physical reactions:

Release of Oxytocin

A tend-and-befriend response triggers the release of the social hormone, oxytocin, which makes you more courageous, empathetic, and trusting of others. 

(Shortform note: Connecting with other people isn’t the only way to boost oxytocin and reap its benefits. Research shows that petting your dog can increase oxytocin significantly in both you and your dog.)

One study found that participants who watched their loved ones experience pain from electric zaps felt less afraid and more empathetic if they held their loved one’s hand during the test.  

(Shortform note: The study McGonigal refers to shows that connecting with a loved one while they experience pain can dampen your fear, but how does physical connection with a loved one affect the person feeling the pain? A similar study measured the effects of holding hands on the recipient of electric shocks, showing that this physical connection also reduced the feeling of pain caused by the test.)

Oxytocin also nullifies the negative health effects caused by extreme, traumatic events or chronic fight-or-flight. One study found that oxytocin released during a stress response protected rats from heart damage during chemically induced heart attacks. The heart attacks only occurred when the rats were given a drug that inhibited oxytocin. 

Although oxytocin reduces the cardiovascular harm of a threat response, sex-specific negative effects of oxytocin during social stress have been reported. In one study, women who received a nasal dose of oxytocin and then participated in the Trier Social Stress Test (performing spontaneously) reported feeling more distress and anger than women without the boost in oxytocin and both groups of men in the study. 

The researchers theorize this may be due to women having a lower baseline of anger, thus resulting in a greater perceived change. Another theory is that women paid attention to different social triggers of the stress test or perceived these triggers in a way that made them feel more threatened. Some research has suggested that oxytocin induces positive feelings and behaviors toward group members, but more defensive aggression toward people outside your perceived group that might pose a threat. The intense and unsupportive pressure induced by the Trier Social Stress would likely cause participants to feel as though they are dealing with a threatening group of people. Thus, oxytocin could have enhanced this effect in certain cases.

Although McGonigal claimed earlier that the conditions of animal studies were irrelevant to daily human stress, she seems to acknowledge the efficacy of the animal study referred to above. This study used forced swimming (a method McGonigal criticizes) to induce the stress response that produced oxytocin, which was shown to protect against heart injury. However, McGonigal acknowledges that intense surges of adrenaline can cause heart attacks in humans, perhaps implying that this isn’t a daily stress and thus, this study is applicable.

Release of Serotonin

Another dominant hormone in the tend-and-befriend stress response is serotonin, which makes you more aware of your surroundings. In this way, you’re better able to notice critical details and act more effectively. For example, you’re stressed because the baby you’re caring for is crying. Because your tend-and-befriend response is triggered and your awareness is heightened by serotonin, you notice the baby is wriggling uncomfortably in your arms and her belly is bloated. These symptoms tell you she’s likely crying because she has to burp.(Shortform note:  If serotonin benefits cognition, how can you increase your serotonin levels? Research shows that you can increase serotonin with daily exposure to bright light (preferably, sunlight) and performing regular, aerobic exercise.)

What Is the Tend-and-Befriend Response?

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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