“Tend and befriend”: The simple relationship hack for burnout resilience

“Tend and befriend”: The simple relationship hack for burnout resilience

Research has shown that the most important factor in determining how you respond to stress is how you think about your ability to handle it. Don’t miss the significance of this statement. The power to determine your best response to stress is in your control, and it depends on nothing more than how you choose to view your ability to manage it. With a little practice, you can learn to shift from a threat response to a challenge response, even if you’ve lived with an overactive amygdala your whole life. Here’s how it works.

The second you face a stressor, your brain automatically begins to evaluate the situation and the resources you have at your disposal to respond to it. Beneath your conscious awareness, the brain begins gathering information: How hard will this be? Do I have the strength, skills, courage, and the help I need to face this and get through it?

[Psychologist and stress expert Kelly] McGonigal’s conclusion is straightforward: “If you believe that the demands of the situation exceed your resources, you will have a threat response. But if you believe you have the resources to succeed, you will have a challenge response.” This is a prime example of how our thoughts can dictate our reality.

To begin shifting from a threat response to a challenge response — which is to say, to begin believing you have the resources to succeed — try viewing your stress response as a resource. It may feel odd or even impossible at first, but baby steps, as long as you keep them up, will get you there. So, “try on” the belief that your stress is helpful and enhancing, rather than harmful and detracting. Mindsets are not set in stone and can always evolve.

The next time your stress response gets triggered — your heart pounds, you sweat, you start to worry and doubt yourself — don’t try to suppress it or avoid it, which actually backfires by reinforcing your stress. Instead, acknowledge and accept it, but tell yourself you’ll prevail. I’m stressed right now, but that’s okay; I’ve experienced stress before and I always get through it. Or hey, why not go for broke? I’m stressed right now, but this ain’t my first rodeo, and I’m going to kick some ass. Simply accepting our experience, rather than fighting it or trying to suppress it, can change a threat response to a challenge response. This is how your own mindset and thinking can transform what’s happening in your brain and body and help you have a healthier response to stress.

Here are some more quick mindset shifts to try:

  • Acknowledge your personal strengths.
  • Think about how you’ve prepared for a particular challenge.
  • Remember times in the past when you overcame similar challenges.
  • Imagine the support of your loved ones.
  • Pray, or know that others are praying for you.
  • Practice a mantra, like “I’ve got this,” “I can handle this,” or my personal favorite “This ain’t my first rodeo.” (I actually wear a t-shirt that says “This ain’t my first rodeo” under my suit when I’m giving a big keynote.)

There’s another beneficial stress response to consider, and this one centers more on our external behavior than our internal mindset. The tend-and-befriend response occurs when we seek closeness and connection with others in order to reduce stress and help us overcome challenging, difficult situations.

The name comes from a 2000 research paper that noted that females’ responses to stress are more marked by tending (protecting and nurturing their young) and befriending (maintaining and strengthening social networks) than fight-or-flight. The thinking goes that, far back in our evolutionary past, there were two distinct roles when it came to caring for offspring: Males went out to kill prey and bring back food for family groups, while females remained behind to care for the young. 

In this system, natural selection favored males who could fight or flee, whereas females stood a better chance of their own and their offspring’s survival by forming cohesive social groups that worked together to handle challenges and threats. Regardless of how or when this response arose, we know that prosocial behaviors — positive acts with a social benefit such as helping others, volunteering, cooperating, and sharing — occur in all genders, as well as in many animals.

As with the other stress responses, the hormones and neurotransmitters that are released during the tend-and-befriend response play a central role in mediating its stress-lowering effects.

The best way to choose the tend-and-befriend response is to look beyond your personal to-do list and find ways to help someone else.

Kandi Wiens

McGonigal notes that the tend-and-befriend response increases activity in three systems in our brain: the social caregiving system, the reward system, and the attunement system. The social caregiving system is regulated by oxytocin, known colloquially as “the love hormone” due to the role it plays in facilitating bonding and intimacy. When this system is activated and oxytocin is flowing, you feel more empathy, connection, and trust, as well as a stronger desire to bond or be close with others. This network also inhibits the fear centers of the brain, increasing your courage. 

In addition to social caregiving, oxytocin is released during childbirth, lactation, exercise, sex, and other forms of physical touch such as hugging and massage. It’s one of our most powerful natural regulators, able to soothe difficult emotions, promote calm, and help get our brain back online after a stressful experience.

Second, the reward system releases dopamine, known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. Activation of the reward system increases motivation while dampening fear. When your stress response includes a rush of dopamine, you feel optimistic about your ability to do something meaningful. Dopamine also primes the brain for physical action, making sure you don’t freeze under pressure. It helps regulate mood, learning, and memory, and contributes to feelings of happiness, focus, pleasure, and alertness. Because dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward, anything you consider enjoyable could potentially trigger it.

Third, the attunement system is driven by the neurotransmitter serotonin. When this system is activated, it enhances your perception, intuition, and self-control. This makes it easier to understand what’s needed to meet the challenge before you, and helps to ensure that your actions have the biggest impact. Serotonin also plays a role in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, learning ability, and memory. It’s hailed as a mood booster and stress reducer, and you can naturally increase your serotonin levels through exercise, exposure to light, and meditation.

Overall, McGonigal concludes, thanks to these powerful hormones and neurotransmitters, the tend-and-befriend response “makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.” And here’s the thing that really gets me: “Anytime you choose to help others,” she points out, “you activate this state. Caring for others triggers the biology of courage and creates hope.”

How amazing, to have within ourselves the ability to trigger this beneficial and protective state. In a nutshell, choosing a tend-and-befriend response will increase your courage, motivate you to express care and concern for others, and strengthen your social relationships. I think this helps explain the behavior of my research participants with burnout immunity who’ve told me they have a servant-leader mindset. They describe being very motivated and driven to help others, which in turn gives them courage to handle stress. In a way, it seems to help them develop a kind of mental toughness.

The best way to choose the tend-and-befriend response is to look beyond your personal to-do list and find ways to help someone else:

  • Offer a conversation to a mentee or co-worker who’s struggling.
  • Listen to others with your full attention.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt if you disagree with them.
  • Seize every opportunity to express appreciation to others.
  • Be generous with your positive feedback.

Having the ability to elicit positive hormonal responses in order to regulate our stress response is an incredibly powerful resource that’s fully in our control. We have the built-in ability to choose a better, more productive response to stress in order to help calm ourselves down, think more clearly and intentionally, and make better decisions and actions.

This article “Tend and befriend”: The simple relationship hack for burnout resilience is featured on Big Think.

The post ““Tend and befriend”: The simple relationship hack for burnout resilience” by Kandi Wiens was published on 04/23/2024 by bigthink.com