A Woman’s Secret to Longevity? Friendship.

make_female_friendsI was recently forwarded a landmark study conducted at UCLA about the magic of friendships among women and the amazing ability these friendships have on our ability to deal with stress.  While most studies on stress have focused on males, a handful of scientists through observation decided that women’s relationship with stress and how to deal with it is far different from that of the typical male – which led them into an in-depth study focused on women.  This study purports that women respond to stress with brain chemicals that propel us to make and/or maintain relationships with other women.  It’s a study that turns decades of stress related research upside down.

“Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Bio-behavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors.  In women, the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the normal reaction to stress, which buffers the “fight or flight” response and instead encourages women to seek out other women or exert a greater focus on their children.  When these actions are undertaken, more oxytocin is released, which counters stress and produces a calming effect.

Interestingly enough, this same calming response does not occur in men.  As Dr. Klein says “testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin.  Estrogen seems to enhance it.”  The discovery that women respond differently to stress started by a simple observation:  a woman under stress tends to seek out others, go have a cup of coffee, and discuss the problem.  Men, on the other hand, tend to go off on their own, and hole up behind a closed door.

Study after study shows that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart disease and cholesterol.  ”There’s no doubt,” says Dr. Klein, “that friends are helping us live.”  A well known Nurse’s Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends a woman had, the less likely she was to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be living a joyful life.  The results were so significant in fact that the researchers concluded that not having close friends was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

Our primary watch-out?  When our lives seem crazy, when we’re busy with life, work and tending to our families, it’s our friendships that get put on the back burner.  As one researcher states:  ”That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other.  We nurture one another.  And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women.  It’s a very healing experience.”

So if anything, be cognizant of the power of our dear friendships with other women, and continue to find the time and space to connect with those who are dear to you.  It’s a proven life saver!

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Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
Marie Curie

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