Stress: The Role of Tend and Befriend

Stress: The Role of Tend and Befriend

How to respond to stress differently

Often, we talk about stress in a one-dimensional context, i.e., fight or flight. However, is this the only response humans have to stress? According to research we have another innate response ‘tend and befriend’ which allows us to bring care and compassion to the forefront of any stressful situation.

Work is the primary source of stress in our modern society. Studies conducted on workplace stress by the American Institute of Stress shown that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress, and 42% say their coworkers need such help.

Moreover, the pent-up frustration, irritation and even anger that stress creates are significant with 14% of respondents had felt like striking a co-worker in the past year but didn’t. Over 25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress, 10% are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent. Moreover, 9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace, and 18% had experienced some threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

Fight or Flight is only one form of stress response

In the 1930s, physiologist Walter Cannon proposed that stress trigger two primordial reactions aggression out or running away. The “fight or flight” concept has dominated our approach to and conversation about stress.

However, fight or flight is only part of the picture. In 1990’s research conducted by Shelley Taylor and her team the University of California, Los Angeles described how stress could elicit a different behavioral response that they named “tend and befriend.”

This response was the main one demonstrated by females. Before their work, most studies on stress were conducted with men, in fact, only 17% of stress-related research had involved women.

Traditionally caring for offspring was an exclusively female role and females would risk more regarding reproductive success if injured or separated from their group. Females have since Stone Age times formed stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out support in times of stress.

Taylor and her co-workers found that compared to males, females’ aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more “cerebral. And that while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, women seem to use it less. However, both men and women are capable of being trusting, generous and willing to protect others. How does that happen?

The Role of Oxytocin

The research points to the role of oxytocin ‘the cuddle’ hormone and endorphins in the ‘tend and befriend’ response. Social support is associated with increases in levels of a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone leads to a decrease in anxiety levels and stimulates the calming down reactions. Oxytocin helps balance out other stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight response such as enhanced arousal, focused attention, and aggression.

Stress often leads to withdrawal, difficulty with interpersonal relationships at work and home and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Oxytocin also stimulates our desire to seek out the social connection. Stressed people who have social support receive an oxytocin boost. Moreover, in turn, helps them feel less anxious, more able to cope and more drawn to other people. Many people experiencing stress at work do not have adequate forms of social support. They may not feel comfortable asking for help from others. They may withdraw from others, further decreasing the amount of support available. This social support deficit is a factor in further stress problems, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Different Strategies for Stress Management

So, what strategies can be put in workplaces to create an environment where ‘tend and befriend’ becomes the standard response of leadership and co-workers in times of stress?

Training in mindfulness and compassion can help to change the corporate culture as they help leaders and employees to become more resilient and to cope better under stress.

Here are my top tips for bringing more compassion into the workplace and in turn cultivating a ‘tend and befriend’ culture.

  1. Compassion starts with self-compassion. A key pillar of any workplace mindfulness training should include loving-kindness practices. Loving Kindness helps us let go of some of the defenses we have built to protect ourselves and opens us to experience more connection not with ourselves but with others. It helps to develop new habits and ways of relating with ourselves and others with generosity and appreciation. All the essential elements of ‘tend and befriend.’
  2. Encouraging leaders to engage in compassionate actions. When someone is engaging in a kind way or helps someone else, we get the warm fuzzy feeling. This behavior is what Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has termed this state of being “elevation.”
    In the workplace, when leaders are polite, respectful, sensitive, or willing to make sacrifices for their teams, their employees experience elevation. Moreover, that, in turn, leads to feelings of loyalty and commitment to that leader. Elevation seems to create a kinder culture.  And employees of compassionate leaders are in turn more likely to be helpful and friendly toward each other.
  3. More authenticity and open communication with a greater emphasis on active listening skills. This can be as simple as excluding smartphones and computers from meeting so that people attend to what is said. Attending includes eye contact, facial expression, body posture, gestures, distractions, vocal variety and vocal (but non-verbal expressions).
    The other form of listening is reflecting and has two skill sets. One is the repetition, and the other is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is the more powerful way and lets the speaker know that you truly understand his or her core message. It means listening to feelings.
    Deep listening takes even further It means not reacting but merely listening, without the need to formulate a response. Deep listening establishes communication and understanding between people in a way that is contemplative and caring.


When leaders promote ‘tend and befriend behavior rather than a culture of fight or flight they see a happier workplace and an improved bottom line. Tend and befriend is indeed another way to manage stress. It can make us social, brave and smart. It can drive leaders and their employees to be more trusting.  Moreover more willing to protect others in response to challenging situations.


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