Isolation from others is detrimental human health–a fact proven in study after study. In 1 study, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death on a 6-month period. For girls, the famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found the more friends a woman had, the less likely she was to develop physical impairments as she aged, and the more likely she would lead a fuller life.
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In actuality, the results were so important, the investigators concluded that not having a close friend and confidante was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight. There’s more: when the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of the partner, they discovered that those women who had a close friend were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairment or permanent loss of energy. Those without friends weren’t as fortunate.
A landmark UCLA study conducted in 2000, suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we will become. Female friendships help calm usfill in psychological gaps, and help fortify our personal identities. The analysis suggested that women respond to stress with a rush of brain chemicals that make them create and maintain friendships with other girls.
Until this study was published, it was generally believed that when individuals experience anxiety, it triggers a hormonal cascade that revs the body into a “fight or flight” response-an ancient survival mechanism left over from when people faced predators daily. The UCLA study indicated that women particularly, have a wider behavioral repertoire than just”fight or flight” states Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, an Assistant Professor of Bio-behavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors.
When the hormone oxytocin is released as a part women’s stress reaction, it buffers the “flight or fight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she participates in this tending/befriending, the analysis suggested that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response doesn’t occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testosterone-which men produce in high levels when they are under stress-seems to decrease the effects of oxytocin. The female hormone estrogen; she adds, seems to enhance it.
It will take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages girls to take care of children and hang out with other girls, but the”tend and befriend” notion developed by Dr. Klein may help partly explain why women consistently outlive men. If friends counter the stress that seems to affect a lot of our life, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so tough to find time to be together? “Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women,” states Dr. Josselson.