Activate Your ‘Tend and Befriend’ Response – World Mental Health Day 2020

Today is World Mental Health Day, a time to reflect on what we are doing to tune up our mental fitness. You’ve probably seen and heard so many experts in the field of mental health voice concern over the impact of social disconnection on our collective mental health as a result of the pandemic, and they’re right. Feeling socially connected to others is a significant protective factor for our mental fitness. Part of this is feeling close to friends, family and colleagues, the other part is feeling connected to your community. In fact, a study out of the UK showed that people without social support are five times more likely to experience mental illness. Another study out of Norway showed that social participation and support are strongly linked to a long life, as well as the improved handling of stressful life situations.

And it’s been a year of stressful situations where we’ve seen news footage of the pandemic bringing out the worst in people, with panic buying scuffles in supermarkets, to anti-maskers abusing those in customer service roles across retailers. But in spite of these small groups of people, natural disasters and national emergencies, do often, bring out the best in people. The majority of us turn towards people in our community instead of exhibiting fear based and anti-social behaviour.

Most of us will have heard of the most common response to a threat, which is our “fight, flight or freeze” response, however more recent research shows we also have a “tend and befriend” response. When faced with a threat, this particular response releases hormones like oxytocin, commonly known as the ‘cuddle’ hormone, that encourage us to strengthen and preserve our social network to reduce stress and anxiety. It essentially encourages us to seek out support from those around us including those in our community.

Studies have actually shown that the “tend and befriend” response reduces incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder and instead increases the likelihood of us experiencing personal growth.  In fact, a study out of Hong Kong which looked at people who lived through the SARS pandemic found that even though they experienced psychological distress, they were able to come through the experience exhibiting positive changes such as increased social support. And the research is clear, facing a traumatic experience collectively instead of alone puts us in a much better position to experience better emotional health and less severe stress reactions in the long term.

How can you activate your ‘tend and befriend’ response?

So how can we engage our ‘tend and befriend’ response instead of our ‘fight or flight’ response when we experience challenges in life? Through the activation of oxytocin, we have more empathy, connection, and trust and fear in the amygdala becomes dampened so we can be courageous. So, activate your oxytocin by:

  • Reaching out and help others – through the pandemic, this may mean offering to call and get to know someone in a retirement village or nursing home who is unable to have visitors. Listen to them talk about how they’ve overcome challenges in the past.
  • Practicing random acts of kindness – if you are able, donate to those in need or offer to help a neighbour with a challenge they are experiencing
  • Another way to tap into this response is to focus on goals that are bigger than yourself when you are feeling stressed. Re-connect with the bigger picture when it comes to your job or think about something you are passionate about and look for ways this passion can help people in your community

Speaking of helping in your community, another great way to tune into your community and in turn activate your ‘tend and befriend’ response, is through volunteering. Research has shown that volunteering:

  • helps counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety
  • combats depression
  • increases self-confidence
  • and provides a sense of purpose

You will have a richer volunteering experience if you take some time to identify your goals and interests. Think about why you want to volunteer. What would you enjoy doing? The opportunities that match both your goals and your core strengths are most likely to be fun, fulfilling and have a more positive impact on your mental health. And don’t forget, our workplaces are also part of our community. Have you noticed a colleague not being quite themselves lately? Or maybe last month on R U OK? Day you were reminded to strike up a meaningful conversation with a friend or colleague to see how they were travelling… is it time to check back in with them?