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Women's Secret Stress Weapon

Most moms have days that fit the very definition of stress. But as women, they possess a secret weapon when the going gets rough: a natural hormone that fosters relaxation and bonding. Unlike men, whose response to stress is "fight or flight," women also have another approach: "tend and befriend," according to a series of studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. They'll take care of themselves and their children and reach out to friends for support.

This uniquely female response to stress has been found in many animal species, says study coauthor Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now at Pennsylvania State University. In a related study, men coming home from a tough day at work were likely to hole themselves up or pick a fight, while stressed-out women were more likely to focus on caring for their children.

What's behind the gender difference? Oxytocin, a hormone that's released during stress as well as during breastfeeding and female orgasm. It calms the heart, decreases anxiety, and stimulates nurturing and socializing. Though the hormone rises in men and women under stress, it's higher in women  -- and its power is amplified by estrogen. What's more, social bonding itself actually boosts oxytocin levels.

"We've known that spending time with friends makes us feel better," says Klein. "Now science gives us a solid reason to value and celebrate these connections." To enhance the effect:

  • Ask your partner or a friend to give you a massage: It lowers muscle tension and stimulates oxytocin release.

  • Take predictable breaks; they're more therapeutic than relaxing moments stolen at random, studies find.

  • Call a friend. "Busy women with families often feel guilty spending time with friends," says Klein. "But nurturing these relationships helps reduce stress, and that has long-term health benefits."
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