Last year I wrote a blog about the stress response, explaining how chronically stimulating the fight-or-flight response to stress can have a host of impacts on health.
But there’s another, less well known, response to stress. In the animal world, females are often responsible for caring for the young. When threatened, they may not be strong enough to fight off the aggressor, and fleeing would mean leaving their young vulnerable to attack. So the females will often group together to surround the young, creating power in numbers to overcome the threat. Researchers have labeled this strategy tend-and-befriend.
This concept should be considered when we assess the impacts of policies. Whether you respond with fight-or-flight, or with tend-and-befriend, each option is a response to what your brain perceives as a threat. If you think about it, many policies are created in response to what some groups consider to be threatening situations or conditions.
Consider school discipline. Disruptions in the classroom, fights between students, bullying and other threats of violence are considered threats by many students and teachers. “Zero tolerance” policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students who engage in these activities might be considered a fight-or-flight response, by fighting back.
On the other hand, restorative justice policies, which focus on repairing the harm caused by misbehavior and getting students to take responsibility for their actions, might be considered a tend-and-befriend response. These policies suggest that the threat of a lack of discipline (and potential violence) should be addressed by tending to those who are perpetrating the violence, as well as those who have experienced it, encouraging them to befriend each other. Research shows that this approach, and other trauma-informed approaches to improving education outcomes, are more effective – both in reducing the threats and also in improving health and education outcomes.
Let’s look at another example. Human Impact Partners recently assessed the potential health impacts of California Proposition 47, which proposed reducing six low-level, non-serious offenses of drug possession and various forms of petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and redirecting resources to services to treat the mental health and substance abuse problems underlying many of these offenses. Labeling these behaviors as felonies is often seen as “tough on crime” – fighting the threat of criminal activity.
But providing treatment instead of incarceration tends to the needs of those with mental health and substance abuse problems rather than harshly criminalizing them. Again, research shows that providing mental health and substance abuse services is more effective in reducing crime, as well as improving physical and mental health outcomes.
There are many other examples. For instance, it often costs less and is more effective to take care of people by providing paid sick days, protecting against wage theft, and keeping families intact – tending to their needs – than to deny access to resources or enforce harsh immigration policies and then deal with the domino effect of more expensive public resources required afterward.
Tend-and-befriend policies, reflecting a traditionally feminine perspective, can be equally, if not more, effective than the flight-or-fight approach. If we’re truly interested in improving health outcomes, we should look to them more often.