Maggie focused a lot on the self-protective stress responses fight and flight. But instead of curating a discussion based on one versus the other, she reminded us that freeze is a go-to instinct for many people--and she also introduced the lesser known “Tend and Befriend” response.
While fight, flight, and freeze will occur at some point in everyone’s lives, Maggie shared that Tend and Befriend is more specific to women and oppressed peoples.
“[It’s] where the person with less power in a situation appeases and manages the emotions of the person with more relative power,” she said.
“It’s when your physical safety, or your financial security, or the safety of your children depends on your ability to calm down or stay on the good side of the other person--boss, husband, justice system…"
I can pinpoint the appearances of fight, flight, and freeze in my life… In general, I tend to completely avoid stressful situations, so flight is my go-to. Shockingly, I experienced fight when I pursued my assailants immediately after getting mugged at gunpoint and promptly pistol-whipped in exchange for my belongings. And the PTSD from that experience has yielded many moments of freeze--which I find excruciating--whether I experience it during an acting audition or during a general PTSD-induced moment of anxiety.
Tend and Befriend, on the other hand, is a response I had never before named, but when Maggie introduced it, I felt...home. To me, though, it has been more of a lifestyle than a direct response to momentary stress.
In a 2007 article introducing Tend and Befriend, Anjula Razdan cited psychologist Shelley Taylor, Ph.D.’s notion that “The dominant metaphor, ‘fight or flight,’ represents the threatening social landscape as a solitary kill-or-be-killed world.”
As one of the developers of the Tend and Befriend response theory, Dr Taylor's theory “challenges the notion that the individualistic, aggressive ‘fight or flight’ model applies to all of us, observing that ‘the human response to stress is characterized at least as much by tending to and befriending others, a pattern that is especially true of women.’”
The threatening social landscape
I find more solace in this generalization than I do the notion that Tend and Befriend is simply a stress response. To me, it’s parallel to author Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” a book that made sense of much of my self-proclaimed crazy.
On Psychology Today, Dr Marilyn Wedge summarizes the book: “the gifted child—the child who is more intelligent, more sensitive and more emotionally aware than other children—can be so attuned to her parents’ expectations that she does whatever it takes to fulfill these expectations while ignoring her own feelings and needs. In becoming the “perfect” child of her parents’ dreams, the gifted child loses something very precious. She loses her true self. In becoming her parents’ ideal child, she locks away her true feelings in a kind of ‘glass cellar,’ the key to which is thrown away.”
And while “The Drama of the Gifted Child” makes the Tend and Befriend response seem like a travesty, it's important to remember that it is indeed a stress response. In Razdan’s article, she reminds us that “seeking out social support and nurturing others is not only a great form of stress relief, it’s also as vital to our health and well-being as the food we eat, how much sleep we get, and whether or not we smoke.”
She goes on to quote Dr Taylor: “The social world is undeniably protective. Ties with family and close friends are protective of physical health…[while] social isolation increases the risk for all causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, or suicide.”
Have you experienced tend-and-befriend? How have stress responses played out in your own life?