We are moving forward back to the “normality” of the past. And the question I have asked myself is: what do I now take with me from this state of emergency of the last 15 months? A friend says to me: “Oh, actually, the imposed calm has done me good and now … the whole meeting of people again … it’s stressing me out somehow”. I reply: “Then let it be, as it was good for you now.” Anyway, a friend I thought I’d lost calls me again out of the blue after years. The joy is enormous and we talk as if we had just hung up the phone yesterday – that alone is a whole story in itself. Anyway, she says, “I don’t need many girlfriends. I don’t think I’m normal that way.” But what is normal?! And anyway, I’m more in the she-can-play-very-good-with-her-alone category. Always have been. The point where I think I have to pay attention now is when I start to find my self-talk insanely interesting…. Luckily, I have a handful of intrepid girlfriends who force me to have fun together (like London 2016). And I love it and then wonder why I don’t do it more often?!
Incidentally, it is not uncommon for women to withdraw more during perimenopause. From a purely biochemical point of view, there is enough to explain this behaviour: the decrease in oestrogen and the possible discomfort associated with the hormonal chaos are enough to make us feel less inclined and less able to meet other people. However, to relieve stress, exactly the opposite behaviour would be good for us women. The American psychology professor Shelley E. Taylor has developed the “tend and befriend” theory.
CARE AND SEEK BELONGING
I first read about the “Tend and Befriend” theory in Sara Gottfried’s book “The Hormone Cure “* – the predecessor to the book “The Hormone Diet “*. The theory states that the classic reaction to stress of “fight or flight” applies in principle to both sexes, but women have developed another reaction to deal with stress. While men – roughly simplified – are more likely to fight or withdraw, women under stress are more likely to seek the company of others and/or take care of their children. A network of caring, stress-relieving relationships gave us women an advantage to survive. Evolutionary biologists attribute this to the division of roles between men and women that was prevalent at the time of the sabre-toothed tiger. While stress experienced by men tended to be caused by hunting, women took care of their children and the community. And the community gave them protection or they could help others in the group to feel safer. Positive feedback lowered cortisol levels in women in the process, and it still does today. Another hormone that plays a big role in this context is oxytocin. In times of stress, being able to fall back on a network of friends, partners and family helps us to get back on track mentally and physically. We already knew that without the theory behind it. I myself just find it exciting what is going on biochemically in our body and what a small, big miracle machine our body is. You could also say: “Nature still has an ace up its sleeve.
Oxytocin is “a hormone produced in the brain that plays an important role in, among other things, the birth process, where it causes the uterus to contract and thus induces labour. Oxytocin also stimulates the mammary glands to release milk. At the same time, it influences not only behaviour between mother and child and between sexual partners, but also social interactions in general.” (Source: Wikipedia). Oxytocin leads to a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. And oestrogen increases the effect of oxytocin. Professor Taylor had now put forward and been able to prove the following hypothesis: Stress triggers the search for belonging, especially in women. We get an “appetite”, so to speak, for relationships that protect and reward us, just as we get other basic needs met under stress. Then, when we get positive feedback, our stress subsides. However, if this appetite is not satisfied and if we even encounter people who are hostile to us, then the stress increases.
This can be measured by the oxytocin content of the plasma. Under certain forms of stress, e.g. relationship stress, the body releases more oxytocin. This then triggers a search for closeness to girlfriends or family. In studies, women who had conflicts in their social structure showed increased oxytocin levels in their blood. The higher the oxytocin levels, the more likely these women were to have reduced contact with their mothers, their friends, their animals or communities to which they belonged. Those in this group with elevated oxytocin levels who had a partner reported that the partner was not supportive, understanding or caring. Little affection between relationship partners and poor relationship quality in general were also associated with increased oxytocin levels. I find it particularly interesting that increased oxytocin levels were only observed with stress caused by social relationships, but not with other causes of stress.
BUT ISN'T OXYTOCIN THE BONDING HORMONE?
How can high oxytocin levels be a biomarker for social stress and at the same time, for example, new mothers have high oxytocin levels in connection with breastfeeding? Oxytocin is good, isn’t it? What at first sounds like a contradiction is not. It is true that our body releases oxytocin when we hug each other or when we are caressed. This in turn increases the
Bonding between two people. Why then are elevated oxytocin levels a biomarker for relationship stress? Professor Taylor has the following hypothesis for this: there is a difference between spontaneously releasing oxytocin in response to a hug and my body continuously releasing oxytocin in response to perceived social stress. Our body does this to guide our actions. If we seek increased closeness from friends as a result and if we get positive feedback from this, then our oxytocin also drops back to normal levels. Having a support network of partners, friends and family to fall back on in times of stress helps us not only mentally, but also physically. Okay, we already felt that friends are good for the mind without knowing the theory behind it. I just find it particularly exciting what goes on biochemically behind the scenes in our bodies. And to close the bridge to the beginning, friends, a good partnership and a good relationship with the family are especially important during the menopause. It’s crazy, though, that it’s precisely at this time that we lose the hormone that increases the effect of oxytocin: oestrogen.
The fact that we withdraw more and seek less closeness to others may also be related to this. Dr Sara Gottfried therefore prescribes a weekly walk with a friend for her patients who suffer mainly from the psychological symptoms of the menopause. “Tend and befriend”, she says. And it really works. So you can also make sure that you bring down your stress level yourself. And on top of that, by being more physical, more hugs and cuddles, you can create little oxytocin surges. Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone, the hormone of love, and couldn’t we all use a little more of it? It’s good that we can soon all be in each other’s arms again. With this in mind: Spread the love, baby.
Okay, it’s also chewing gum advertising. But if it hits a nerve, I don’t care where it comes from.
SOURCES The hormone diet*: Regulate your metabolism and lose weight successfully by rebooting your hormone system The hormone diet*: How to balance your hormones naturally Taylor, Shelley E. “Tend and befriend: Biobehavioral bases of affiliation under stress.” Current directions in psychological science 15.6 (2006): 273-277. Interview with Professor Shalley E. Taylor All links marked with * are “affiliate” links. If a purchase is made through such a link, I will receive a commission (example: book Hormone Diet 1,33€). There are no additional costs for you. But Amazon has to give a part of its profit to me. Where, when and how you buy a product is of course up to you, and yes, I also try to buy as much locally as possible.