Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Stressed out


I am stressed out by the constant media blather about stress and other problems that seem, in analysis, to reiterate the common sense most of us possess. Still, I must admit, it may be good to be reminded of some of these issues as we swim the waters of contemporary life.

Among the daily barrage of e-mails, I often read heartfelt stories about the strength of friendships among women, and I appreciate them even though many are common knowledge. One came last week that was, I first thought, just another set of platitudes about women's complaints. This message, however, was an edifying and perceptive review of a study at UCLA about women and stress. I learned a lot by reading it.

A group of researchers at UCLA shared a standing joke: When the lab's women scientists were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee and bonded. When the lab's men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. Quite by accident, these researchers at UCLA discovered that most studies on stress were conducted with male subjects. Following this conclusion with a lengthy study, researchers found that women release a substance called oxytocin when stressed. As a result, instead of the "flight-or-fight" response to stress that men exhibit, women display an instinct to tend or befriend, encouraging close bonding and longer lives than men. The loss of friends is, concomitantly, a disaster for many women and contributes to their premature death. Not having close friends is, the study concluded, as detrimental to one's health as is smoking or carrying extra weight.

So I paid attention, as I have entered a period in my life where I tend to retreat into my writing and reading, my art projects or the background noise of radio, music or TV. My circle of friends has narrowed. No longer in a busy workplace of children and teachers on a daily basis, I have come to realize that I miss the camaraderie and affection of the hugs from little ones, the chit-chat in the faculty room and the interaction with adults who visit the campus. Many friends I had in my life have moved, become less close or gotten involved with projects that diminish our former ties. The UCLA study also noted a growing trend that hinders the well-being of women: As we work more we spend less time with the very women who nurture us and help us to live longer. The days of my mother's coffee klatches are vanishing.

Many of the things I used to do have been limited by my spurt of travel. It is hard to keep up even situational friendships when one is away for clumps of time. But now I am home for awhile and I cannot let the tendency to hide creep in. Last summer I was active in the Ketchum Arts Festival, and one of the joys was the interaction with my fellow artists. It was hot and tiring work to man my little booth, but the exhaustion was ameliorated by the smiles of those around me, seeing friends stop by, the help of the volunteer teenagers and the encouragement we all gave to each other. It was like being in a play: Even for a brief period the sense of connection in such a community event is amazing.

One oft-cited positive about living in the Wood River Valley is how wonderful it is to go to the post office or the market and encounter many friends and neighbors. Sometimes people complain about the almost incestuous closeness of people here, but no one complains about how we take care of each other and respond to cries for help. So my job is to get away from my sewing supplies and my computer and get out in my town once again.

I have a good friend from California coming to visit next week. In spite of some daunting physical conditions, she remains optimistic and positive. Susie has a wide and close circle of friends, people she has known, like me, for as long as forty years. Thirteen of us celebrated a major birthday with her in Park City a couple of summers ago, and I was deeply moved by the love and respect my friend engendered. I know she has friends because she is one. She nurtures and is nurtured in return. I will try to emulate her response to stress—indeed, to all the challenges life naturally poses—towards a longer life.

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