We all know what stress feels like - sleeping through your alarm and rushing to work, those days when nothing seems to go right, those times you have a million things to do and not enough time to get them done - the list is endless.
When feeling stressed, you might feel like you don’t have time for friends. “If I spent time with them today, I’d spend the whole time distracted and worrying,” we can think. But, social science research has found otherwise. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that, for women, spending time with friends decreases stress levels.
Previously, it had been commonly thought that the stress response for both men and women was “fight or flight,” but recent research has indicated that women instead prefer to “tend and befriend” when under stress. Women are more likely to seek out and spend time with others, which increases feelings of safety and reduces feelings of distress.
Shelley Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct, claims that the key ingredient to spending time with others is good conversation. Taylor explains that sharing information and experiences brings women closer together. Similarly, the UCLA study reveals that when women spend time with their close friends, oxytocin is released. The oxytocin hormone is associated with increased feelings of closeness to others and decreased levels of stress. Spending time with friends triggers the release of this hormone which then helps to produce a feeling of calm.
Clearly, the role of close friends in emotional well-being is a crucial one, but research suggests that, due of recent changes in the social landscape, fewer women are spending this valuable time with friends.
A 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that less than 39 percent of women spend time socializing and communicating with others each day. Additionally, a Duke University study found a decrease in the number of social and family ties for Americans over the past 20 years with almost half of the population reporting a lack of social support. While women still report larger social networks than men and engage in more discussions with family members, women are no longer less likely than men to be socially isolated than they were 20 years ago.
Some social scientists attribute this to frequent relocation, most often for jobs or education, among other shifts in social climate. When your best friend lives across the country, visits become less frequent and more difficult to orchestrate with busy schedules and financial limitations. What’s more, the number of hours worked has a significant effect on the degree to which a person feels socially isolated, studies have shown. More hours spent at work means less time spent with friends.
That’s not to say that friendships cannot be sustained and cultivated across great distances and different time zones. Thanks to phones and Skype, the distance can seem a little less daunting. These means of long-distance communication, according to Shelley Taylor, can maintain and even strengthen feelings of connectedness.
Certainly friendship cannot be reduced to merely a biological stress reducer, but the benefits of our tend-and-befriend impulse underscores the need for close, positive, female relationships. These don’t just benefit women but society as a whole. Due to the changing landscape of the past 20 years, women need to become more creative and more flexible when it comes to cultivating and sustaining healthy friendships.
But even with these greater challenges and the demands of modern life, the real benefits of a true friendship remain both mutual and immeasurable.
(Photo by Belathee Photography)