‘Tend and Befriend’ — The Overlooked Trauma Response

When facing pain, sorrow, or uncertainty, how do you respond?

Do you lash out, railing against the injustices of the world? Or withdraw to nurse your grief and distress in private?

Much of the existing exploration into human stress responses tends to focus on these two main reactions: fight and flight. More recently, you may have also heard of two additional responses: freeze and fawn.

Yet even these four distinct responses can’t sum up everyone’s response to trauma and stress. In 2000, a team of University of California, Los Angeles psychologists led by Shelley Taylor proposed another, more social response, which they termed “tend and befriend.”

Rather than directly challenging a threat or fleeing from it, the tend-and-befriend response involves tending to your loved ones by pulling them close, physically or figuratively.

You might then turn to others around you, offering support and taking steps to make sure that everyone feels calm and safe.

Taylor’s research team found plenty of support for the idea that both long-standing social ties and newly formed bonds can:

  • increase your sense of security
  • boost resilience
  • help you find the strength to heal and move forward

This idea of tending and befriending, which arose in part from their personal observations of how some people responded to stress, eventually became an evidence-backed theory.

Fighting and fleeing (or freezing, for that matter) have some pretty clear benefits, especially in the context of evolution. If you vanquish a threat or successfully escape from it, you survive to face another day.

Of course, breaking free alone could separate you from the rest of your group. This doesn’t just cost you the advantage of safety in numbers and cut you off from physical and emotional support. It also puts vulnerable members — young children, older adults, and sick people — at greater risk of danger.

Humans have a strong instinct for self-preservation. But for many mammal parents, particularly the human variety, a desire to ensure the safety of their children can outweigh the urge to save themselves first.

The tend-and-befriend response appears to have its roots in this instinctual need to protect children and affiliate with others for greater safety.

That said, you can easily apply it to everyday life, whether you have children or not.

Just think of a time you tried to handle a problem on your own, and then compare it to a time when you turned to your loved ones for help or a time when you reached out to offer assistance to someone navigating a crisis.

Tending and befriending behavior might show up more recognizably after a major crisis or trauma.

For example, say that a couple is hospitalized after a serious car crash. A close friend might care for their kids while the couple recovers.

Another example would be the supportive community of survivors that arises after an earthquake destroys an entire neighborhood.

But the tend-and-befriend response isn’t limited to large-scale events. It can show up in everyday challenges as well as extraordinary circumstances.

For example, you’re tending and befriending when you:

  • offer to pick up groceries and prescriptions for older or immunocompromised neighbors
  • invite your new neighbor to stay for the duration of a severe winter storm
  • pull your family into the kitchen to make dinner together after a miserable day at work
  • send your kids and their cousins to play in the backyard with snacks so your sister can share her recent relationship difficulties
  • gather a group of co-workers together for mutual support after your boss announces your office is closing, with only a few opportunities for transfer to another branch

In some cases, this response might happen as more of a follow-up to your initial stress response.

For example, say that you’re walking home from a friend’s party when your ex comes up behind you, grabs your arm, and tries to pull you toward their car. You shove them away and run, using both your fight and flight responses.

Once you make it to your friend’s house, you explain what happened, let them comfort you, and stay the night where you feel safe. Their support helps soothe your fear and distress, and by morning, you feel much calmer.

Experts have offered a few potential explanations for the tend-and-befriend response.

Gender roles in early human hunter-gatherer societies play an important part.

Certainly, some women did hunt, but they often took on other responsibilities closer to camp, especially when pregnant, nursing, or caring for small children.

People with babies and small children couldn’t easily escape or fight — but they could band together to protect each other and create a stronger group. Together, they could defend themselves more effectively, and survival became more likely.

Hormones also factor in.

During stressful or frightening situations, your body produces a number of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that help prepare you to handle the threat. It also releases oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding, attachment, and trust.

Higher levels of oxytocin might prompt you to seek companionship and form social connections. Yet estrogen — a hormone present at higher levels in women — can boost oxytocin’s effects.

As a result, women may be more likely to tend to loved ones and befriend others in times of crisis.

Nurturing children and loved ones can also activate the reward system in your brain, reinforcing the same behavior in the future.

Keep in mind, though, that the tend-and-befriend theory doesn’t suggest that women never show aggression when threatened or stressed — only that female aggression seems less linked to fight or flight.

It’s also important to recognize that this response is just that — a stress response, not a marker of parenting skills. Anyone can engage in these behaviors, regardless of gender.

To put it another way, the theory doesn’t imply that women are automatically better at nurturing and caring for children.

Ever felt stronger and more optimistic during a crisis, simply because you had a loved one by your side?

Experts consider social connection a basic human need, and plenty of research highlights the physical and mental health effects of loneliness and isolation.

Humans generally don’t do well entirely on their own. Tend and befriend represents a choice to come together, approach challenges as a stronger whole, and offer a helping hand to anyone who needs it.

The bonds you form with others can:

  • offer protection and support
  • improve your physical health and emotional well-being
  • boost empathy
  • promote feelings of belonging
  • lead to personal growth
  • remind you of what you value most in life

Learn more about the benefits of friendship, plus how to get them.

Admittedly, this response may not always be ideal. You won’t always want to tend and befriend — at least not right away. In certain situations, you might choose to address a conflict or threat directly before turning to loved ones for solace and support.

What’s more, everyone needs some time alone, and it’s perfectly fine to briefly withdraw and recharge during a rough time.

Just know that support from others can make a big difference, whenever you choose to seek it out.

Tending and befriending doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but you can still learn to embrace this response when you think it might have benefit.

One important step? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s OK if you can’t handle everything on your own.

If you feel self-conscious when you need support, you can always try offering something in exchange. Here’s an example:

“Any chance you could come over and help me entertain the kids tonight? I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. I’ll take yours for a night next week, once I’m feeling better.”

Asking others what they need can go a long way, too. They might find it just as difficult to ask for help, so offering your assistance — or simply letting them know you’re available — can help you forge a connection that benefits you both.

During moments of difficulty and distress, you might find yourself turning to loved ones or cultivating new connections with people facing the same challenging circumstances.

At the heart of the tend-and-befriend response lies a sense of safety and hope. Things might feel pretty awful in the moment, sure.

Yet drawing on the strength of supportive loved ones, and offering your own physical and emotional support where possible, can help you better navigate turmoil and pain.

Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.

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