There's nothing like a bit of oxytocin between friends

Within ten minutes of meeting and greeting each other a group of women are likely to have discussed the new teacher at school, Jean’s haircut, the film they saw last night and Brenda’s latest treatment for breast cancer.

The range of emotion expressed across the plateau of this conversation is diverse and,  most importantly, totally acceptable to the group of friends.

Someone cries, they are consoled and counselled with the interchange ending in bursts of laughter. Women rally round. It is the currency of their friendship — this support they give each other through minor and major crises in their lives. Friendship matters to women. And it matters to their health.

A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause them to maintain their friendships with other women. These findings have turned five decades of stress research — most of it on men — on its head says the report.

‘The stand and fight or flee response is the usual reaction triggered by hormones when people are under stress,’ says Laura Cousin Klein, Assistant Professor of Bio-behavioural Health at Penn State University, USA: ‘It is an ancient survival mechanism.’

‘Now researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioural repertoire than just flight or fight,’ explains Dr Klein. ‘It seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the flight or fight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead.’

And of course the more they do this the more oxytocin is released which further reduces stress and so on. One of those effortless cycles in nature.

Known as the hormone of love, oxytocin is shown to be associated with the ability to maintain interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.

Most women first learn about oxytocin when they are pregnant. What woman doesn’t recall the strong urge to rearrange the house, paint over that wallpaper and renovate the bedroom weeks before giving birth. This powerful instinct to nest is down to oxytocin. It also stimulates milk production, helps the uterus contract during labour (very important) and is released during sexual orgasm in both men and women.

The fact that women respond differently to stress than men has significant implications for their health. The way oxytocin encourages us to care for children and to hang out with our gal pals may explain why women consistently outlive men, says Dr Klein.

Women with a close friend and confidante in their lives are more likely to survive the loss of a spouse without a permanent loss of vitality.  

The 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 would lead a joyful life. The results were so significant that not having close friends was deemed to be as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

Women are a source of strength to each other. They pick each other up when they fall down.

And it starts early. In grade four my best friend Kristine and I did everything together. We swapped clothes, were always at each other’s house or riding our bikes around the block or telephoning each other. This was how we learnt about relationships. Was this intimacy the foundation for relationships in our adult lives? All those paddle pops Kristine and I shared at recess had more meaning than I realised.

The story of our friendships is the story of our lives says Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien in I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendships in Women’s Lives; it tells the stories of our children, divorces, careers, loves and remarriages.

How do women define a good friend, ask the authors. Being known and accepted, understood, having a trust and loyalty you can count on and having someone on your side. And talk is at the heart of women’s friendships. It is the way they connect.

For Sara from Mullumbimby it is about the female journey of her life. One that she wants to share with female friends so they can talk about ‘where we are as women’.

Now in her fifties Sara’s needs are very different to the friendships she sought when immersed in mothering young children. She feels she is coming back to being playful, having fun and enjoying the company of other women.

‘You don’t have to make sense,’ she says of her interaction with female friends.

So when you are out and see a group of women talking and laughing, they aren’t just having a good time; they are improving their health and the longevity of their lives.

It gives a whole new meaning to John Lennon’s lyrics — ‘I get by with a little help from my friends’.

Related to - Regular Columns | Musings about ... | Inner questioning

By Susanna Freymark

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