Women respond to stress differently than men do. Fortunately, we also have a better way
to fight it: each other.

Friendships between women soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our
marrige, and help us remember who we really are. But they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that spending time with our girlfriends can actually counteract the
stress most of us experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women
respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to maintain friendships
with other women. The finding has turned upside-down five decades of stress research--
mostly on men.

"Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience
stress, it triggers hormones that rev the body for fight or flight," says Laura Cousino Klein,
PhD, one of the study's authors. Klein is presently assistant professor of bio-behavioral
health at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

"In fact," says Dr.Klein,"women release the hormone oxytocin as part of their stress
response. This buffers the fight or flight response and encourages concern for children
and for gathering with other women." When women engage in this "tending or befriending,"
more oxytonicn is released, which further counters stress and produces calmness.
This calming response does not occur in men, says Dr.Klein, because testosterone seems to
reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen, she adds, seems to enhance it.

The study that women respond to stress differently than men was initiated in a lab at UCLA.
"There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came
in and bonded by cleaning the lab and having coffee, "says Dr.Klein. "When the men were
stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher
Shelly Taylor that most stress research has been on males. The two of us knew we were on
to something."

Drs.Klein and Taylor discovered that females respond to stress differently than males, which
has significant implications for women's health care Women's "tend or befriend" pattern
may explain why we consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties
reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.

"There's no doubt," says Dr.Klein, "that friends are helping us live longer." In one study,
for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death
over a six-month period. In another study , those who had the highest number of friends
over a nine-year period had a 60-percent reduction in risk of death.

Friends also help us live better. The famed Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical
School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical
impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact,
the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having a close friend or
confidante was as statistically detrimental to one's health as smoking or obesity.

If friendships are so beneficial, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why
is it so hard to find time to be with them? That question is addressed by researcher
Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-auther of "Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls'
and Women's Friendship"(Three Rivers Press, 1998).

"Every time we get too busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of
friendships with other women," says Dr.Josselson. "That's a mistake, beccause women are
such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have
un-pressured 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."