The Forgotten Stress Response: Tend and Befriend

house precariously hanging over the edge of a cliff
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Narrated by Marie T. Russell.

Video version

"Fight or flight! That's the only way we cope with stress," said my professor years ago. For more than sixty years, our competitive nature has been assumed to be related to our built-in sympatho-adreno-medulary (SAM) response system. This is our automatic alarm state that pushes our body to the max so we can do something very aggressive to win over a predator or perceived source of severe stress, or to hightail it away as quickly as possible.

When we feel challenged, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and we become agitated. Hormones are released that signal the middle (medulla) area of the adrenal glands, which, in turn, secretes large amounts of stress hormones to help us confront or run away.

This SAM system can have a devastating effect on our body by lowering our immune system and overextending our heart and circulatory system. It is a full assault- or retreat-system, and it is at the root of our chronic competitiveness.

Other than Fight-or-Flight Mode?

Psychologist Walter Cannon conducted the classic research on the SAM-mediated fight-or-flight response. With laboratory research conducted primarily on male rats, he showed that our body reacts to stress through a sympathetic nervous system surge and associated stress-hormone release sequence. It was assumed that the fight-or-flight response was our only natural intense reaction to perceived stress, but new research by psychologist Shelly Taylor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues suggests that learning from male rats has its serious limitations.

Taylor's research indicates that we do not always have to think of ourselves as in competition against others and the world. No matter how normal the fight-or-flight response has become, we have a choice of another, less toxic way of dealing with stress. She calls it the "tend-and-befriend response," and it is related to McClelland's RAS (relaxed affiliation syndrome).

Taylor's conclusions are based on the discovery that females tend to respond to stressful situations by first thinking about protecting themselves and their children rather than attacking the threat. They do so through nurturing rather than aggressive behaviors -- "tending" rather than "competing". They also are more likely to deal with stress by thinking about how to form alliances with an extended social group -- "befriending" rather than giving up and fleeing.

As wives know, men seem more often to fight or take flight when they feel challenged or confronted, while the women turn to taking care of what matters most and seeking support in doing so. 

A Non-Competitive Response to Stress

Evolution of a "second" kind of response to stress may be related to the way our ancestors spent their days. While their cavemen were busy competing, fighting, and fleeing, cave women were home at the cave busy caring, tending, and befriending. They were the primary caretakers of the children, and getting killed fighting or deserting their offspring by running away would not have allowed their children -- their genes -- to continue.

The sweeter success I am suggesting is based on a more selective stress-survival approach. By using our capacity to attend, we can mentally select the stress response that best matches the situation -- reflecting rather than just reacting.

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

Even though both genders suffer from it, toxic success is related to the dominance of the male way of giving meaning to life, love, and working. Being aware that loving and connecting can be as effective a stress mediator as competition or surrender is a helpful step in taking at least some of the toxicity out of success.

Now more than ever, I believe my mother's warning was right. Just because "everyone else is doing it", and trying to be successful in the normal way, does not mean we have to or should do so. We do not have to be like cartoon characters running off a cliff with legs churning so fast they are a blur. We do not have to be propelled over the leading edge by toxic success's mixture of momentum and ignorance.

If we don't pay attention to the toxic nature of success, we can end up taking a terrible fall. When we realize that the hormonal rush of competition can keep us going for only so long, our momentum will eventually slow and the gravity of our situation will drag us back down to the realization that we are not thriving. Instead, we are striving ourselves crazy.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc. ©2002, 2004.

Article Source:

Toxic Success: How to Stop Striving and Start Thriving
by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.

book cover of Toxic Success: How to Stop Striving and Start Thriving by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.Dr. Pearsall directly challenges many of the self-help conventions, which he finds are not solutions but part of the problem. His detoxification program has helped many TSS patients to sweeten it up by changing their mindset and taking back their attention, focusing on what they need, not what they want.

Info/Order this book.

More books by this author.

About the Author

photo of Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. (1942-2007) was a licensed clinical psychoneuroimmunologist, a specialist in the study of the healing mind. He held a Ph.D. in both clinical and educational psychology. Dr. Pearsall has published more than two hundred professional articles, written fifteen best-selling books, and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Monte/ Williams Show, CNN, 20/20, Dateline, and Good Morning America.

Visit his website at

More Articles By This Author

You May Also Like

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration




baseball player w;ith white hair
Can We Be Too Old?
by Barry Vissell
We all know the expression, "You're as old as you think or feel." Too many people give up on…
climate change and flooding 7 30
Why Climate Change Is Making Flooding Worse
by Frances Davenport
Although floods are a natural occurrence, human-caused climate change is making severe flooding…
made to wear a mask 7 31
Will We Only Act On Public Health Advice If Someone Makes Us?
by Holly Seale, UNSW Sydney
Back in mid 2020, it was suggested mask use was similar to seat belt wearing in cars. Not everyone…
coffee good or bad 7 31
Mixed Messages: Is Coffee Good Or Bad For Us?
by Thomas Merritt
Coffee is good for you. Or it’s not. Maybe it is, then it isn’t, then it is again. If you drink…
is it covid or hay fecer 8 7
Here’s How To Tell If It's Covid or Hay Fever
by Samuel J. White, and Philippe B. Wilson
With warm weather in the northern hemisphere, many people will be suffering from pollen allergies.…
inflation around the world 8 1
Inflation Is Spiking Around The World
by Christopher Decker
The 9.1% increase in U.S. consumer prices in the 12 months ending in June 2022, the highest in four…
sage smudge sticks, feathers, and a dreamcatcher
Cleansing, Grounding, and Protecting: Two Foundational Practices
by MaryAnn DiMarco
Many cultures have a ritualistic cleansing practice, often done with smoke or water, to help remove…
changing peoples minds 8 3
Why It’s Hard To Challenge Someone’s False Beliefs
by Lara Millman
Most people think they acquire their beliefs using a high standard of objectivity. But recent…

New Attitudes - New Possibilities | | | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.