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tend and befriend the stress response you might not have ever heard of

The Productive Stress Response You Might Not Have Heard Of (No Group Hugs Required)

About 2 weeks ago, my computer’s hard drive crashed. My son was checking the weather forecast and said that it was “acting funny”. I ran in to assess the situation, tried a reboot, a hard reset, plugged it in. Nothing worked to resuscitate my unresponsive machine.

Since everything I’d ever written about the stress response (along with treasured family photos and who knows what else) had very likely just disappeared into the ether, I had to channel everything I knew about the stress response, to keep from losing my sh*t.

There are more options than Fight or Flight…

The go-to stress response can often be the quick-to-react (and overreact) fight or flight response. We default to the neural pathways used most often, so if the pathway from my thalamus to my amygdala was as worn-out as my computer, I might have been tempted to slam it down, yell at my son, run for the hills or become paralyzed in despair.

None of these options would give me the outcome that I wanted: a nice afternoon with my family and a fully functioning hard drive. Instead of indulging my fight or flight response and smashing the computer with the nearby stapler, I chose the tend and befriend stress response. I reached out to my team for help. We had a webinar scheduled for about 350 participants in our Mindfulness and the Workplace program the following day, which was kind of a big deal. My team quickly mobilized, got ahold of our local computer repair person, dropped off a computer for me to borrow and dug through their own files to find an old copy of my presentation.

In Kelly McGonigal’s work, she cites that fight, flight or freeze tends to get quite a bit of media attention, but tend and befriend is an overlooked yet more productive reaction to stress.

How Tend and Befriend Helps:

• It activates your prosocial instincts
• Enhances social attunement (so you know what the situation calls for)
• Decreases fear
• Increases courage

So while the fight, flight or freeze response is driven by fear for our survival, the tend and befriend response is actually what gives someone the courage to risk their own life and drag another person out of a burning building.

How did this help us survive?

The tend and befriend evolutionary purpose was to motivate us to protect our offspring. Protecting the greater good of the tribe was even more important than being able to individually outsmart a tiger. In modern days, it motivates us to defend the people we love or a cause we care about.

The main driver, oxytocin, is not just the “cuddle hormone”, it’s also the hormone of connection and courage. It activates our reward center and even has heart-healthy benefits. So it not only gives us the desire to help others, it’s also part of our body’s built-in resilience mechanism.

But I should just tough out my stress, alone …

Neuroscientists at UCLA conducted a study that showed how the tend and befriend response actually helps shift the brain out of fight or flight. They gave participants two coping mechanisms during an induced stressful situation and compared the results: squeezing a stress ball or squeezing the hand of a loved one.

Those in the hand-holding group showed increased activity in the reward and caregiving centers of the brain and decreased activity in the amygdala (aka headquarters for the fight or flight response). The stress ball group had no effect on the amygdala’s activity and actually decreased the reward and caregiving centers of the brain.

But I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold hands with my co-workers …

Right, probably not an appropriate coping mechanism within the workplace. However, there are other ways to increase your tend/befriend response besides starting each meeting with a group hug.

Here are a few tips:

1) Identify your bigger than self goals
Focus not just on your own success, but also on the bigger mission. According to a University of Michigan study a shift from focusing on self-goals to bigger than self goals helps people feel more hopeful, curious, caring, grateful, inspired and excited. In contrast, those focused entirely on their own goals are more likely to feel confused, anxious, angry, envious and lonely.

2) Give Your Time Away
Seems counterintuitive, yes, but a Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania study showed that when time-starved workers used their time to help others, they had a significant reduction in feelings of time scarcity than those who suddenly were gifted a windfall of extra time to complete something. Their confidence boost in helping others even gave them more self-efficacy to tackle tasks more efficiently.

3) Be a Burden
We rarely ask for help thinking that we might be a burden. But knowing that your need for support actually has health benefits for someone else should ease that concern a bit. Isolating ourselves when we’re struggling is just about one of the worst things we can do for our wellbeing, so reach out for help, when the situation calls for it.

On the evening of the computer crash, even after plan B was ready to be implemented, I was still trying to cope with my stress. I was saying goodnight to my daughter and burst into tears when she asked me how I was doing. She scooted over and let me just rest my head on her shoulder and recover from the day’s frenzy. As a 13-year old, she’s no stranger to stressful days and, with her own oxytocin increase, she knew exactly what was needed for our tribe to move on.

Everyone who helped me was caring, supportive, compassionate and motivated. This probably wouldn’t have been the case if I had been hurling curse words all over the place (which, I’ll admit, had crossed my mind as an option).

Amplifying our tend and befriend response requires not only flexible thinking but also the ability to take a pause and use mindful awareness to choose the most effective response over the most habitual response.

Thank you to my team for your amazing support when the-you-know-what hit the fan! I am so grateful to have each of you as part of the Mindful Life team :).

Kristen Race, Ph.D.
and the Mindful Life Tend and Befriend Team

PS Want to cultivate more tend and befriend connections in your life? Join me and a small group of caring individuals for a mindfulness retreat in Colorado or Costa Rica. Colorado spots are almost full, details are here.

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