To Tend and Befriend

Posted on in Healthy Living by Anna O’Malley

Oxytocin and the Feminine Call to Counter Climate Change

Last week I participated in the Global Climate Strike in San Francisco with my children. All around me people of all ages bonded in a shared experience, staring at the unfolding catastrophe that is climate change. We felt connected to people all around the world. Good will and poignant emotions ran high.

As we marched along with other mothers and children, I reflected upon climate change and our human response to stress. We are biologically programmed to respond to stress for our survival. When stressed we are flooded with hormones like cortisol that support a “fight or flight” response. However, we are also neurohormonally wired to “tend and befriend,” or to respond to stress with “prosocial” strengthening of bonds. We women are particularly programmed this way.

The Feminine Response to Stress

This so-called feminine stress response is mediated, in large part, by the hormone oxytocin. And while it is true that women tend to have higher oxytocin levels (estrogen can stimulate its release), men produce it too. Oxytocin has a calming, soothing effect on our bodies: It lowers cortisol levels, blood pressure, anxiety, and pain. On an interpersonal level, it promotes bonding and feelings of connectedness, trust, and friendliness, along with our ability to respond to facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. It decreases fear and mistrust in the “fight or flight” center of the brain, the amygdala, and promotes an overall sense of well-being.

Evolution favors those who behave in ways that support survival. To survive infancy a baby requires a connected, nurturing parent. A mother and infant will have a better chance at survival (this was particularly the case with our ancestors) if they are connected to others. Interestingly, in some settings (unfamiliar surroundings, navigating “us vs. them”), a surge of oxytocin can create aggressive protective behavior. Think mama bear.

I wonder what “selective pressures” climate change will exert on our evolution? Will those who are skilled in connection, healthy self-soothing and fierce protection of that which we love have a survival advantage?

That is unanswerable but studies show that when people are faced with a psychosocial stressor, those with higher oxytocin levels who also have social support engage in higher level problem-solving skills. They employ more effective coping strategies like humor, support seeking, and cognitive distraction. They are less likely to display depressive symptoms. As we face the certainty that we, collectively, have some problem-solving to do, I am curious how we can raise our oxytocin levels. How can women, with our natural physiological capacity to “tend and befriend” lead in cultivating connectedness and with it, adaptive responses to stress?

women with poster

How Is Oxytocin Stimulated?

Oxytocin is released under many circumstances, both pleasurable and intense. Most famously it is associated with labor and childbirth. It is oxytocin that is responsible for the uterine contractions that move newborns out into the world. It’s also released when a mother feels her baby’s skin on hers and causes milk to flow while nursing. And of course oxytocin is released under the same intimate circumstances that prompted childbirth in the first place—cuddling, kissing, lovemaking—these all enhance our oxytocin. Orgasms flood the body with oxytocin.

We also have special touch receptors on our skin that lead to oxytocin release. It has been found that light stroking, placing a hand on someone’s arm, receiving a foot massage, and the sensation of warmth (like a warm blanket, a warm bath, or a hot water bottle) all stimulate oxytocin release. So does giving and receiving a hug. Petting a dog raises oxytocin levels in both the human and the dog—and when accompanied by eye gazing oxytocin levels increase as much as 300 percent.

Eye gazing between humans is powerful too. We humans are social creatures. Sustaining eye contact, particularly with someone who is attentive and who we care about feels good. Gratitude raises oxytocin, as does gift-giving. Eating a nourishing meal (with full mindful awareness of the sensual pleasure in it) releases oxytocin, while sharing that meal further enhances its benefits.

How might we bring more touch, generosity, and connection into our lives? We can offer to walk and pet a friend’s dog. We might give our child a massage at bedtime, or give our partner a massage in loving appreciation, maybe even with sensual connection. We can learn to start work meetings with an expression of gratitude. We can offer hugs. By consciously bringing our full selves into a listening relationship, with eye contact and engaged body language, we actively raise oxytocin.

Climate Crisis—A Call to Women

While opportunities abound for all of us to cultivate the “feminine” ability to connect, perhaps women share a unique ability to lead at this stressful planetary moment. With our innate tendency to befriend we can work toward dismantling the social constructs that lead us to perceive members of our human family as other.

With our natural desire to tend we can lean into repairing relationships within communities and with the natural world. As we navigate the collective eye of the needle that is climate change, the feminine art of tending and befriending will be key to our resilience. It may also serve in our evolution.

Anna O’Malley, MD, practices integrative family and community medicine in West Marin at She founded and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden in Bolinas, exploring the medicine of connection to ourselves, each other, and the earth.

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