• jennamayhew

Fight, Flight and Freeze - Not the Catch-all it's Believed to Be

Research, like many things, is not gender-balanced. Psychological research presents no exception to this. The disproportionately male-based research on responses to stress has found that we are biologically wired towards a, “fight, flight or freeze” response to stress. This understanding has become so widely accepted that even without a background in psychology you are likely to be familiar with the theory. And while women may well experience this at times, there are situations where their reactions may be better understood as a ‘tend and befriend’ response. Think of it as a safety-in-numbers response. When under stress, many women become biologically driven to affiliate with others. Arguable, the exact opposite of fighting or running away.

A little history... as a species we have typically lived in clans, say 40-60 people, and that’s allowed us to survive in the wild. When stress-response systems evolved the gender roles were largely segregated, with women tending to children. Thus is makes sense that for women, when under stress, we become driven to tend (to our children) and befriend (connect with others as this increases our chance of survival). These are both ‘affiliation’ responses.

Now onto the hormones…oxytocin is central in driving affiliation responses. It plays a role in all things love, sex and attachment. The effects of oxytocin are strongly enhanced by oestrogen. Exactly how mens’ and womens’ stress responses differ is still unknown but there is a large body of animal literature and small body of human literature that suggests the above inferences are reasonable. So, like most areas of women-specific biobehavioural research, more is evidence is needed, but the implications of the ‘tend and befriend’ response are HUGE.

In practice…I spent some time working at a sexual assault crisis service. Men used it but it was primarily females who contacted us. I spoke to literally hundreds of women struggled with their own responses to a sexual assault crime. They DID NOT experience fight or flight. They also did not understand why they did respond with placating, complying, remaining friendly-with-the-perpetrator etc. instead of kicking or screaming (fight) or running away (flight). They felt they 'should' have had a fight or flight response and because they didn't, they were somehow culpable for the crime committed against them. This confusion quickly turned into a devastating misplacement of the blame to themselves, adding layers of trauma atop the already traumatic experience.

The practical implications of having a proper understanding of women’s responses to stress are huge. So I’ll be watching this space and hoping that in 10 years time our understanding is a lot more sophisticated than the old ‘fight or flight’ theory.