Stress is an inevitable part of life. Thankfully, friendships and meaningful communication can be, too. And according to new research published in the Journal of Women and Aging, our friendships can actually have an impact on our cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels. Here’s what the study found.
Studying the effect of friendship on stress.
You’ve heard of fight-or-flight, but what about tend-and-befriend? In this study, researchers wanted to look at how stress and friendship are intertwined in women of various ages.
They gathered 32 women, half of whom were 62 to 79 years old, and the other half, 18 to 25 years old. Some were paired with a friend, and some with strangers. The women were then instructed to complete conversational challenges that involved explaining to their partners how to arrange a geometric puzzle into a particular shape.
The shapes were hard to describe, and the researchers were able to gauge how efficient the participants were at communicating under stress by how quickly their partners were able to make the correct shape. The team also measured cortisol in their saliva to gauge their stress levels throughout this task.
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Interestingly, the younger participants fared better than the older participants when they were paired with friends but weren’t as good at communicating with strangers. The older participants, on the other hand, were able to complete the challenge with both friends and strangers.
As postdoctoral researcher Michelle Rodrigues, Ph.D., explains in a news release, the task required participants to see where the other person was coming from. “It seems like the younger adults are a little more hesitant in trying to do that, whereas the older adults have an easier time doing that with strangers,” she explains.
Perhaps most interestingly, the women who were paired with friends had lower cortisol levels than those paired with strangers in both age groups.
According to Rodrigues, “Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress […] In order to deal with stress, women can befriend female peers.”
Friendships make our lives that much richer, and based on this research, less stressful too. As Rodrigues notes, much of the research on the tend-and-befriend hypothesis has only focused on young women, but “we can see that friendship has that same effect throughout the lifespan; familiar partners and friendship buffer stress, and that’s preserved with age.” Consider this your cue to call up a friend today.