06/05/2014 11:36 BST | Updated 06/07/2014 06:59 BST

Fight, Flight or Tend and Befriend?


Science of emotions

The science of understanding emotions is a complex business. Emotions and human behavioural responses are not tame creatures, they are lithe, perpetually changing. Creating theories which cover all these complexities must be like trying to herd cats, and every now and again a new theory jumps out of the box and questions our knowledge.

Fight or flight

A new theory is starting to gain strength in terms of our behavioural responses to threats. It stems from the difference in female and male response to stress. I think this new work strikes a very potent cord, and actually could be an important turning point in our connection to the world.

Our response to a perceived threat was until recently understood as solely 'fight or flight'. A simple theory developed by men, very much connected to the Darwinian understanding of 'competition'. The theory says when threatened we all have a tendency to 'go off' like a smoke alarm. In this metaphor the threat can be as simple as burning toast, a lack of power in our batteries, or a house fire. Fear triggered us, and our programming means we responded without control. When in this state we either stay and fight or run away. Recently this has been modified to include the possibility of freezing as a response as well. However, these simple ideas are now being questioned.

Tend and befriend

Whilst undertaking a study on chemicals in the brain, Doctors Laura Cousin Klein and Shelley Taylor noticed a marked difference in the behaviour of women in response to stress. When stressed the women tended to do the cleaning, get together, share a coffee, whereas the men 'holed up somewhere on their own'. More and more research is now uncovering the concept that 'women have a larger behavioural repertoire than just fight or flight,' writes Gale Berkowitz. 'When the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the flight or fight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead.' This response is being called 'tend and befriend'.

I think it is too simplistic to say that women have this response and men don't. We all generate oxytocin, we can all behave in this way. Men, historically, have used a simplistic generalisation to explain their aggressive behaviour, and this is not good enough. We all need to learn how to adopt tend and befriend behavioural patterns, and I'm sure many men have always responded this way, just as many women continue to respond with fight or flight.

Reptilian and mammalian brain

The fight or flight response is located in our reptilian brain, whereas the tend and befriend response is from the neomammalian brain. The development of mammals is intimately linked to the importance of family, the mutual aid and support which comes from group behaviour. Therefore tend and befriend is the more mature and responsible human response to fear and stress. When men excuse behaviour through their violent response they continue to stagnate and hold back progress for humanity as a whole. We need to teach, role model, and promote the importance of tend and befriend. It is such a better response, and applicable on so many different levels.

Find better solutions

In contrast to fight and flight, tend and befriend allows us to come up with innovative, better and more flexible solutions to a wide range of problems. Tend and befriend can show us a new way of relating to ourselves. Many of us respond to illness or disease with fight or flight, we bombard it with drugs, we fight it with remedies, or we try to ignore it and get through anyhow. Our response could instead be to open a dialogue with our illness, try to understand what patterns of behaviour lead to us often becoming ill. Or accepting that we may need a few days inactivity, to be in bed, in order to come through the other side.

Many of the conflicts in the world are perpetuated by vengeance, fear and misunderstanding, the classic symptoms of fight or flight. They continue to perpetuate themselves by relying on fighting and there being right or wrong. If our response to perceived threats were long term, based on tend and befriend, they would radically improve the situation. What if we sent aid, education, health programmes, listened to concerns, rather than threatened and intimidated others?

Civilization - 'the stage of human social development which is considered most advanced'.

If we as individuals and as a culture respond to fear and tensions with tenderness and dialogue, and by doing so promoting understanding not entrenched mistrust, maybe then we are moving towards being a civilization worthy of the name. As ever, men need to learn from women as part of that process. Are you up for it, or does it threaten your beliefs and viewpoint?

If you want to discuss tend and befriend come down to the Mind Body Spirit event in London on Friday the 23rd May. I'll be giving a talk about this and other subjects at 4pm.