‘Tend and Befriend’ — The Overlooked Trauma Response
How do you respond to pain, sorrow, or uncertainty?
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 being aggressive or fleeing from a threat, tend-and-befriend means tending to your loved ones by pulling them close.
You might offer support and take steps to make sure everyone feels safe.
“Taylor’s research team found a lot of support for the idea that bonds formed from long-standing social ties can also be formed.”
- increase your sense of security
- boost resilience
- Help you find 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 have benefits in the context of evolution. You can survive if you escape or defeat a threat.
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. For many mammal parents, a desire to ensure the safety of their children can outweigh the urge to save themselves first.
The tend-and-befriend response seems to have its roots in the need to protect children and affiliates with others for greater safety.
“You can apply it to everyday life, even if you don’t have children.”
Think of a time when you reached out to someone in need, or a time when you turned to your family for help, when you were trying to handle a problem on your own.
Why is tend and befriend such a new concept?
Taylor published the first paper on the tend-and-befriend response in 2000. To contrast, Walter Bradford Cannon first introduced the idea of a fight-or-flight stress response in
Wondering why it took so long for researchers to recognize this response to stress.
The research on stress responses only includes men. Women were excluded from clinical trials in most scientific research before the 1990s.
Research is just starting to explore the ways stress responses might vary by sex.
“Taylor’s team observed befriending and tending to women. They presented this response as a female reaction to stress.”
“They suggested that previous researchers hadn’t identified the response because they hadn’t considered female reactions to stress.”
Tending and befriending behavior might show up more after a crisis.
“A couple is hospitalized after a car crash. A close friend might care for the couple’s kids.”
The supportive community of survivors that arises after an earthquake is an example.
The tend-and-befriend response is not limited to large-scale events. It can show up in everyday challenges.
You are tending and befriending when you are with us.
- Offer to pick up groceries for older neighbors.
- If there is a severe winter storm, invite your new neighbor to stay.
- After a bad day at work, you can make dinner with your family.
- Send your kids and cousins to play in the backyard to have fun.
- After your boss announces your office is closing, you should gather a group of co-workers together for mutual support.
This response might be more of a follow-up to your initial stress response.
“Say that you are walking home from a friend’s party when your ex comes up behind you, grabs your arm, and tries to pull you towards their car. You use both your fight and flight responses to shove them away.”
“You should stay the night at your friend’s house if you make it there first, because they will comfort you and you will feel safe. By the morning, you feel much calmer, because of their support.”
Experts have offered a few possible explanations for the tend-and-befriend response.
The roles of women in early human hunter-gatherer societies are important.
Some women did hunt, but they often took on other responsibilities closer to camp, such as caring for small children or pregnant women.
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.
The hormones 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.
Women are more likely to befriend others in times of crisis.
Nurturing children and loved ones can help you to reinforce the same behavior in the future.
The role of attachment
Research from 2019 also suggested that attachment style may have something to do with the stress response.
The study found that men tended to fight while women preferred to flee.
But they also found that both men and women said that they’d be most likely to choose the tend-and-befriend response in times of stress.
Researchers noted that participants with an avoidant attachment style were less likely to show a tend-and-befriend response. What’s more, women with avoidant attachments were just as likely to respond by fighting as men.
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 is important to know that this response is just a stress response and not a marker of parenting skills. Anyone can engage in these behaviors.
“The theory doesn’t imply that women are better at caring for children.”
Have you ever felt more positive during a crisis because you had a loved one by your side?
Experts consider social connection a basic human need, and plenty of
“Humans don’t do well on their own. Tend and befriend is 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 be.
- Protection and support can be offered.
- Improve your physical and emotional well-being.
- Increase the amount of empathy.
- Promote feelings of belonging.
- Personal growth is a result of lead to personal growth.
- remind you of what you value the most.
How to get friendship and more are included in this information.
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 is not something that comes naturally to everyone, but you can still learn to embrace it when you think it might benefit.
“One important step? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is okay if you can’t handle everything on your own.”
If you need support, you can always offer something in exchange. Here is an example.
“I need you to entertain the kids tonight. I can’t get out of bed. I will take yours for a night next week, once I am feeling better.”
Asking others what they need can be helpful. They might not find it easy to ask for help, so offering your assistance can help you forge a connection that benefits you both.
During times of difficulty and distress, you might find yourself turning to your loved ones or connecting with people who are facing the same challenges.
The tend-and-befriend response is based on a sense of safety and hope. Things might feel terrible in the moment.
Drawing on the strength of supportive loved ones and offering your own physical and emotional support can help you navigate turmoil and pain.
Crystal Raypole is a writer for Healthline. Her interests include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. She is committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and cat.