WomenEd Blogs

Tend and befriend. #SeatAtTheTable

by Vi Gandhi @V1Gandhi

Earlier this month, I reached out and found #WomenEd, a global grassroots movement of women leaders in education. 

When I read about how the organisation started and spoke with founding member, Vivienne Porritt, I noticed that although they were not aware of the science behind it, they knew the benefits of seeing stress in a more positive light. For example, they offer support and guidance so that individuals can join forces to address the issues faced by women in education together. Their leadership styles are centred around relationships, community, and collaboration. 

These women leaders have demonstrated the adaptive value of tend-and-befriend.

Stress is a normal part of teaching and leadership. 

While fight-or-flight is the physiological response to stress for both males and females, research shows that the tend-and-befriend is the biobehavioural response to stress in females. 

In times of high stress, oxytocin, also known as the 'love hormone', plays a crucial role in social bonding, childbirth, and lactation and nudges us to seek support from others. It enhances empathy and compassion making us more willing to help and support those around us. In conjunction with other female reproductive hormones, oxytocin is responsible for the tend-and-befriend response to stress.

Stress occurs when the perceived demands are greater than the perceived resources to cope with them. Many believe that stress is harmful to health. However, studies show that people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were significantly less likely to experience stress-related illnesses compared to people who believed that the stress was harming them. 

How we view stress alters our body's response to it. When we view the stress response as preparing us for the challenges ahead, our approach becomes more purposeful and resilient.

'Tending' manifests as activities that involve nurturing self and others to reduce stress and enhance safety. 

'Befriending' involves the development of social networks for support and creating a sense of belongingness by surrounding ourselves with people that care about us.

Social connection is also a motivating factor to help us to move forward. It encourages us to take steps towards progress. Having someone to discuss career-related problems, solutions, and progress builds resilience. It helps build confidence so that we can rise to the challenges. By asking its community to be 10% braver, even by doing something as simple as tweeting, or attending a coffee morning, #WomenEd empowers its members to cultivate courage. Listening, reassurance and good advice are all results of the tend-and-befriend stress response.

We are biologically primed to reach out when we need help and to offer support to those who need it. It gives us a sense of purpose and improves our mental health. 

However, although showing up is important, studies show that most benefits of social support come from the feeling of contributing to a collaborative effort such as 'empowering more women in education to have the choice to progress on their leadership journey'.

Seeing stress as an adaptive response to help us cope can be women's superpower!

The way we think about stress affects us emotionally and biologically. Our thoughts can contribute to our illness and our wellness. Building social networks not only enhances and expands our resources but can also buffer us from the harmful effects of stress. Such a message can make a difference to our health and so must be spread, I was inspired by Professor Kelly McGonigal's Tedtalk in which she explains how to make stress your friend and you can be too!

Building networks of supportive people is one way we can practice self-care and buffer ourselves from the negative effects of stress. Organisations such as #WomenEd increase our resources by providing access to a wealth of experience and advice. It offers a connection to a community of educators. Importantly, it provides a sense of belongingness and the opportunity to support and encourage each other to tackle the unconscious biases that disadvantage women in education.

I have certainly found my table in #WomenEd and been 10%braver by presenting at #WomenEd's Third Global Unconference withDeb Outhwaite so I hope that you do also.

Wishing you a healthy new academic year with opportunities to connect.

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Monday, 27 March 2023

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