Friendships among females can have positive health benefits

Sunday, May 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:38 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 10, 2009
Erica Beshore, left, and Ginger Clower have been friends for five years now. They met while in graduate school together at MU. Clower will be moving to Madison, Wis., soon for her career, but the pair plan to keep in touch.

When graduate students Erica Beshore and Ginger Clower get stressed about their research, they have the solution: girl talk over a dinner of pancakes and Kahlua milkshakes.

"Whenever things are stressful, that's how we deal with it," Clower said. "We just kind of stay in and just do chill things to relax our way through it."

Beshore, 27, and Clower, 26, are on to something more than just hanging out. According to a landmark UCLA study, female friendships have a calming effect and can lead to decreased stress levels, which might prevent women from having health problems in the future.

The 2000 study found that when women are stressed, they feel an urge to “tend-and-befriend,” which means that women want to talk with, or take care of, someone. When they do so, a hormone called oxytocin is released that has a strong de-stressing effect, and, when combined with estrogen naturally found in women’s bodies, is “potent.”

UCLA psychology researcher Laura Klein said in a previous interview with public health writer Gale Berkowitz that she and fellow author Shelley Taylor, who is now at Penn State, made the connection when they were working in the lab together. They joked that when women in the lab were stressed, they came in, talked to each other and had coffee. Meanwhile, the men in the lab would clam up and go somewhere to be alone when stressed.

Lynn Rossy, a health psychologist at MU's Healthy For Life, the T.E. Atkins University of Missouri Wellness Center, said there's a good reason that women developed this response.

“Women have had to tend their children and their families, historically,” she said. “Women also — because of that role — have needed to have social networks while men have typically been providers, gone out and brought home the bacon. Men have had to do the fighting for the family, and women have formed the social networks in the communities.”

Today, psychologists say these social networks play an important role for women and their health.

Anne Meyer, a psychologist at the MU Counseling Center, said the social networks women tend to have, and men often don’t have, might be one of the reasons women tend to live longer than men.

“Anytime there’s good news to share or bad news that happens, social support makes a big difference in the lives of women and men," Meyer said. "Because women have to have more emotionally intimate relationships than men, they tend to fare better.”

These female relationships are often what help women get through rough times, Meyer said. For example, Meyer said that when women go through a breakup, they tend to get through it a little better because of their social network of female friends, which acts as a “buffer.”

Men, on the other hand, usually do not come out unscathed. Meyer said that when men go through a divorce, they may have more health problems than women do because they do not always have strong support networks.

“It really shows the value of friendship," Meyer said. "Men aren’t supposed to cry, or express their feelings or reach out to others, which does have health detriments, so it is sad our society feels that way.” 

The study also said women report many benefits from their friendships with other women.

Clower, who just finished her doctoral work in veterinary pathobiology, said her friendship with Beshore has definitely had an impact on her life. For example, she said Beshore inspired her to get healthy and start going to the gym.

"She's definitely inspired me to be healthier," she said. "She's really good at exercising, and I was a complete lump on a log when I got out of undergrad. Even though she had a busy schedule, she would cook a healthy dinner and she would always go the gym, and I didn't even know what the inside of the gym here looked like."

Beshore said Clower has helped her out in return, especially last year when Beshore was planning a big, elaborate wedding while deep in her course work for her doctorate in medical microbiology and immunology.

"I just went through a time where I was frustrated with the whole experience of graduate school and not knowing when you are going to graduate. ... She really talked me through all of that, and a lot of that was during wedding planning, so I just had compounding stress over stress and I think she has been a real encourager and would tell me to stick with it," Beshore said. "I think that's amazing.

"Although Ginger and I have only been friends for five years, it's a really close friendship that I know will last for years, and who knows down the road. We'll definitely be able to help each other out in the long term."

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