by Karen Ball
The holiday time is usually one of joyous expectation of children’s delighted squeals of excitement, the anticipation of traditional family favorite holiday treats or simply reveling in the blessings of the season. The holidays are not always so joyful for many people who have been given an unexpected diagnosis such as Sturge-Weber syndrome or who have to cope with a loved one’s death. While hearing the tales of laughter and delight in the holidays is always uplifting, I also hear the angst filled words from worried parents and loved ones. I sometimes struggle to find the appropriate words of comfort and compassion during their times of trouble.
One thing I’ve known since Kaelin’s birth in 1987 is men and women definitely do have different ways of coping with stress and grief. The “fight or flight” response is a real reaction to unexpected shocks that life can hurl at us. Sturge-Weber certainly falls within the category of unexpected events which continue to hurl “lil surprises” at us throughout the person’s lifetime. I experienced personally firsthand the difference in how men and women cope with stress and grief when Kaelin was diagnosed at birth. One of us went into flight mode and the other into fight mode...oddly enough the roles reversed as the flighter spouse regained equilibrium! But I digress...
Researcher and UCLA psychologist Shelley E Taylor made the important observations that much of the earlier research done on stress was conducted on male subjects. Women were omitted from studies because researchers feared women’s monthly cycles would skew their results. Dr Taylor was the one who helped us see that the “fight or flight” syndrome is true about men but she found that when women are stressed they do something entirely different...they “tend and befriend”. In other words, women under stress will nurture those around them (tend) or will make social connections with those they feel safe (befriend). The need for social support is a key difference in how men and women differ in their responses and is centered on the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “cuddle” hormone...you know with high levels of this hormone you feel relaxed, happier and less stressed.
Research is supporting the role of nature and nurture in stress and grief response. There are of course generalities surrounding how each gender responds but noted significant physical differences are enlightening us about how we do respond and also about how society expects each gender to react and act. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle as to whether a person “fights or flights” or “tends and befriends”. Men will often seek out an active mode to help them cope with their loss and women an interactive mode. The key is to keep communication open and non judgmental as you build a united front to outlast the initial shock and awe moments. Sure everyone has to have moments where they hide in their man cave or bake a ton of cookies (and may I also say eating them)but staying stuck in any one response mode is not healthy for the individual or couple on the stress and grief battlefront.
So with the approach of the holidays, please remember in the midst of your revelry there are those who find it stressful to wade through the “fa la la la la’s” and just want it over. For those of you under stress and in grief, we are here for you and yours whether during the holidays or throughout the year. Be gentle with one another...each day is precious no matter how painful or grief filled. In this short life, my wish for one and all is to find your joy, bestow love and have faith a new day is just around the corner.
*Portions excerpted from the MTF newsletter vol. 13 no. 1 For Those Who Give and Grieve by Tom Golden, LCSW “stress and grief: do you fight or befriend?”