Women and friendship: the gift you give yourself

We can say without a doubt that intimate friendships have always been important to women. But have you noticed that they’ve become even more so as you face the transitions of children growing up and parents growing older? Findings from a recent MacArthur Foundation Study indicate that the emotional security and social support that these relationships provide for women have been a survival strategy for them in adversity. In fact, friendship is one of the keys to a long and more satisfying life.

A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with brain chemicals that cause us to maintain friendships with other women. Until this study was published, scientists generally thought that stress triggered a hormonal cascade that prepared the body either to stay and fight or to flee. Now they believe that women have more behavioral choices than just fight or flight. It seems that, when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in women, they react by tending to children and coming together with other women. When they engage in these activities, more hormones are released, further reducing stress and producing a calming effect.

This ‘tend and befriend’ notion, developed by Drs. Shelley Taylor and Laura Klein, may explain why women consistently outlive men. Studies have found that social ties reduce our risk of disease and help us live longer. Friends also help us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School determined that the larger the number of friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they age, and the more likely they are to lead a joyful life. And that’s not all. Research about how well women function after their spouse has died indicates that, even in the face of this severest stressor, those women who have a close friend and confidante are more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality.

So, Sandwiched Boomers, look at your friendships and build on them now:

1. Appreciate your friends and give these relationships the time and attention they need in order to blossom. Turning to other women for support can provide some of the strength to help you cope.

2. Women’s friendships can be complicated. What you need from each other, and the intensity and frequency of these needs, can lead to some misunderstandings. Hang in there during the rough periods.

3. Friendships change throughout life. When you’re young, friends help form your identity. In adolescence, with peer pressure, your sense of self depends on what you see reflected in their eyes. When you know who you are, how friends see you seems less important.

4. No one friend is able to meet all of your needs. As you mature, your focus turns more to qualities such as compatibility, trust, empathy, and respect. When you go through challenges, different friends may provide support, validation, and comfort.

5. Friends buffer the effects of distress and are a source of meaning and purpose at painful times. You may be tempted to pull away in an effort to deal with difficulties on your own, but this is the time to stay bonded with those who understand you.

6. It may be difficult for you to ask for help if you’re used to being the one who provides it. Perhaps you believe that your self-esteem comes from not needing to depend on others. Now is the time to recognize that, being human, you can receive as well as give support.

7. Don’t hesitate to buddy up with a friend who is going through similar changes. Accept her love and encouragement as you allow her to feel good about being able to help you. Your friends can provide a supportive network, only if you let them in.

8. Giving as well as receiving support is beneficial. When you offer as well as accept friendship, you’ll find you are healthier over time. As the 17th century British playwright, Hada Bejar, said, “The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.”

Whether it’s a casual dinner after work or a weekend away at a spa, monthly book clubs or weekly exercise workouts, don’t you love to get together with other women? Friendship shapes who we are and who we are yet to become. If friends counter the stress that swallows up much of our time, are such a source of strength and nourishment, keep us healthy and even add years to our life, we owe it to ourselves to find the time to be with them. It’s crucial to our well-being.

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