Responding to a threat is a natural, and needed, human instinct. But the fight-or-flight response might not be the only option.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the fight, flight, or freeze response to stress. The fight-or-flight response is an innate emergency reaction that leads you to avoid or face the stressor.

But, did you know that experts and research suggest there’s another common way humans respond to fear?

The tend and befriend theory proposes that humans also rely on taking care of young ones and connecting with others during stressful situations.

The term was coined in 2000 by Shelley Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of California.

The tend and befriend theory says that when faced with a perceived threat, humans will tend to their young and rely on others for connection and support.

The theory was born from observing animals in laboratory settings and recording how, when shocked, they’d attack each other.

Taylor and her group of researchers note that, when threatened or stressed, humans typically affiliate with one another instead of attacking each other. This is particularly true for females.

According to Taylor, humans have a biological system that regulates social behaviors in the same way basic needs like hunger or thirst are also regulated.

In addition to our basic needs for physical sustainability, Taylor observed that humans are social creatures that instinctively rely on interaction with others. Females are often inclined to nurture and protect offspring.

In sum, the tend and befriend theory says that humans, particularly females, often respond to stress by tending to young ones and by seeking connection or befriending one another.

When social interactions are comforting, stress levels decrease. So, when there’s a stressor, people will instinctively seek out support from others.

Biology and hormones

According to Taylor’s research, the instinct to tend to offspring comes from the rising levels of oxytocin when a relationship is threatened.

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in childbirth and breastfeeding. It may also be linked to what Taylor calls “affiliative behaviors,“ or those behaviors that come from the need to connect with others.

She proposes that when we have “positive contacts,“ oxytocin connects with the body‘s opioid system. This system regulates reward- and pain-related behaviors. When activated, the opioid system is thought to reduce the fight-or-flight stress response.

A note on gendered language

Within this piece, we use terms like “men” and “women” to match the language in the studies we reference. We recognize the variances within gender identity and expression, and use terms such as “identified,” “feminine,” and “masculine,” in an effort to encapsulate the wide spectrum of identities.

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What the research says

Have you heard the phrase “mama bear“ to describe how even the gentlest of animals often respond to a perceived threat to their babies?

According to Taylor’s research, females of all species are more likely to respond with the tend and befriend instinct, while males may be more prone to showcasing aggressive behaviors more common in the fight-or-flight response.

Some research suggests this response is an evolutionary adaptation that protects females and their offspring from being attacked by males.

Because females seem to be more prone to the tend and befriend response, some have wondered if males can tend and befriend at all.

It may be possible that humans have been conditioned to accept tend and befriend behavior from females more often than from males, but males can tend and befriend as well.

According to a 2020 study, men and masculine-identified folks may be less likely to showcase their feelings, hurt, or desires. This could be from the need to respond to social expectations, generally in line with what’s considered masculine in some cultures.

While we can learn to manage stress, our social responses may not be completely within our control. So, when do we respond one way or another?

Differences and similarities between the two responses

With the fight-or-flight response to stress, the person perceiving the threat (whether real or perceived) has a biochemical response. This produces changes in the body and also motivates behavior.

These changes can include:

  • production of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol
  • blood rushing from organs to arms and legs, readying the body to react
  • increased heart rate
  • lower ability for critical thinking
  • hypervigilance

During this response, you either confront the trigger, freeze, or remove yourself from the situation.

But not all triggers are immediate and temporary. Present-day life can consistently offer long-term or repetitive challenges that we can’t immediately escape from.

When feeling a lot of chronic stress, you may tend to seek social support or look for comradery.

This doesn‘t mean that the fight-or-flight response isn‘t activated, too. You could still experience a physiological activation that may lead you to be hyperalert, for example.

Depending on your primary stress response, you may experience different effects on your behavior and mental health.

Relying mostly on the fight-or-flight response may lead to more aggressive or avoidant behaviors. It could also contribute to the development of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.

On the other hand, the tend and befriend response might contribute to social cooperation and support. Human interaction has been shown to decrease the fight-or-flight response.

But living with mental health conditions like anxiety or PTSD, or experiencing trauma, may also make you more prone to the fight-or-flight response.

In the same way, if you have a secure attachment style, rather than an anxious or insecure attachment, it may be easier for you to turn to tending and befriending in times of stress.

According to Taylor‘s work, challenges to the tend and befriend response lie in needing social interactions to be transactional.

This means that if everyone isn‘t on the same page about the need for support, the outcome of befriending may be different.

Also, even though there are pros to seeking social connections, not all interactions can be beneficial. However, because this is an instinctive response to stress, it‘s possible to tend and befriend others even when the end result may not be to your benefit.

For example, someone could stay in a relationship with an abusive partner because of their tend and befriend response, instead of leaving the situation from a fight-and flight response.

The tend and befriend theory says that humans may seek social support and connection when facing a threat. This stress response is an alternative to the fight-or-flight reaction.

While the fight-or-flight response to stress may lead to more avoidant or aggressive behaviors, as well as contribute to mental health conditions, the tend and befriend instinct may facilitate social cooperation.

Both males and females can tend and befriend, although the research shows it’s more commonly seen in women.