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Stanford University School of Medicine

Feeling stressed? Connecting with others may help, psychiatrist David Spiegel says

4076455959_e1deffac02_bIn times of stress, it's tempting to retreat under a pile of covers and wait it out with a box of chocolates until the coast is clear. (It's possible I've tried this approach a few times.) Yet, an increasing number of studies suggest that reaching out to others may be a better way to handle our troubles.

This "tend-and-befriend" response, a concept first coined by University of California, Los Angeles psychology professor Shelley Taylor, PhD, and colleagues in 2000, is when agitated individuals care for and reach out to others. This tend-and-befriend combo seems to benefit stressed individuals by promoting safety and reducing distress while helping them cultivate and maintain social networks.

“That’s why we have evolved to seek help and to give it under times of stress, not simply to fight or flee,” says psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, in a U.S. Health News and World Report article.

It seems that stress may be inherently collective. Spiegel said that our experience of stress is influenced by how we think others experience stress. “There’s also been some interesting research showing that physical comforting of one kind or another can dramatically modulate the stress response,” he said.

Spiegel found evidence of this in the support groups he leads for breast cancer patients. At first, Spiegel said, there was concern that bringing people with late-stage breast cancer together could backfire if one of the group members died from the disease. Instead, "it strengthened them,” Spiegel said. “They found that they had learned things about dealing with cancer that would actually help other people. They felt more competent in dealing with their own stress in helping others.”

Is the tend-and-befriend response still relevant in today's fractious political climate? Yes, Spiegel said: “I think now we need it more than ever."

"[We can] demonize people and build walls and arm everybody to the teeth, or to find ways to create a stable social network that accommodates differences,” Spiegel said. "We undervalue the strength of social commitments and overvalue the strength of our bodies and our weapons.”

Previously: Exploring how social support aids physical healthTies that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationships and Firdaus Dhabhar discusses the positive effects of stress.
Photo by eflon

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