I am currently writing a chapter about trauma, and how horses help heal trauma for my forthcoming book, Called by the Horse: Women, Horses, and Consciousness. In writing about how trauma affects women differently than men, I took a fresh look at the research that Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues published in 2000 in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Review.
Essentially, the article reveals that because of gender bias, previous studies related to the biological results of stress were done on men and male animals. The prevailing idea of “Fight or Flight” from the 1930s came from studying men and male laboratory animals, not female subjects. The research from Taylor’s team showed that while the biological Fight or Flight responses applied to men and women, in women there was a different hormonal response that kicked in: the “Tend and Befriend” response.
“Feel good” and bonding hormones such as oxytocin (found in breastfeeding, giving birth and orgasm) are released in women under stress. Oxytocin is also released in mutual grooming activities like grooming a horse or petting a cat. The hormones cause a biological drive to take care of each other (tend) and to gather with others (especially women) for support, to gather resources and for protection (befriend).
I checked out Taylor’s book, The Tending Instinct. The book is great, but I was disappointed to learn that the genesis of this groundbreaking research came from a lecture that Taylor attended with her graduate students on the amygdala, the part of the brain responding to threats. The bias towards using male subjects in stress research was so obvious that it triggered the drive to study how stress affects women.
My Version: The Casserole Brigade
I was disappointed in Taylor’s version because I had heard a different story about how she and her team chose to study women and stress that was much more relatable. Years ago, I heard the story that Taylor and some of her women research colleagues noticed that when work was especially stressful, the men tended to disappear back to their desks (flight), while the women brought goodies to share and gathered in the work kitchen to eat and commiserate together (tend and befriend).
I recognize the urge to gather and share food; when there is a serious illness or death in a family, women are often the first responders, arriving with casseroles and sweets to share. In September, when my neighbor heard that my beloved cat died, she immediately brought chocolate.
Tend and Befriend as an Evolutionary Advantage
While I prefer my origin story, what is more important is that this research has an interesting hypothesis and important implications. During the million or so years our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, there were evolutionary advantages to the biology of stress; faced with the threat of dangerous animals or human attackers, men were more likely to flee or fight.
It is theorized that women, on the other hand, especially of childbearing age, had to stand their ground in order to take care of babies and small children. They were probably also taking care of the sick and elderly. Fleeing would be more of a threat to themselves and their vulnerable dependents. Women’s biological Tend and Befriend programming encouraged nurturing and banding together with other women, thus protecting their small groups and ultimately the human species.
Why is this important and what does it have to do with horses? Women’s Tend and Befriend instinct shows an evolutionary advantage toward cooperation rather than the competitive and brutal assumptions we have of the survival of the fittest as “natural.”
Horses are one of the oldest surviving species on the planet, probably because they recognize mares as leaders. It’s time to come together and take our place as leaders as we just saw with the U.S. 2018 midterm elections. We need to access the cooperative herd consciousness and leadership skills that come naturally to horses—and are hardwired in women—for the survival of our own species.
Bring on the Casserole Brigade.