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Friends for life.

Friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world. They fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the daily stress most of us experience. A landmark study from the University of California suggests that women respond to stress by releasing hormones that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It's a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research--most of it on men--upside down.

"Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, the hormones released in their bodies cause them to either stand and fight, or flee as fast as possible," explains Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, one of the study's authors. Now the researchers suspect that women's bodies react differently to stress.

According to Dr. Klein, when a woman experiences stress, she releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone buffers the 'fight or flight' response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women. The more she 'tends and befriends', the more oxytocin is released, producing a calming effect. "This calming response does not occur in men," says Dr. Klein, "because the male hormone testosterone--which men produce in high levels when they're under stress - seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen [one of the female hormones], seems to enhance it."

THE HEALING POWERS OF FRIENDSHIP

The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health. The 'tend and befriend' notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may even explain why women consistently live longer than men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. "There's no doubt," says Dr. Klein, "that friends are helping us live longer."

Friends are also helping us live better. The famous Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they grew older, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

And that's not all. When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, those women who had a close friend and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Yet, if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That's a question that also troubles researcher Dr. Ruthellen Josselson, co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' and Women's Friendships (Three Rivers Press, 1998).

"Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women," explains Dr. Josselson. "We push them right to the back burner. That's really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they're with other women. It's a very healing experience."
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Title Annotation:friendship research
Author:Berkowitz, Gale
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:615
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