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Fight–or–flight or tend–and–befriend: what the New Testament might teach us about our stress response

Fight–or–flight or tend–and–befriend: what the New Testament might teach us about our stress response

Elizabeth Oldfield asks how we can learn to react to collective threats with “tend–and–befriend”, rather than “fight–or–flight”. 28/04/2020

This week I attended a Zoom seminar led by Alex Evans, who runs the Collective Psychology Project, and hosted by Azeem Azhar at Exponential View.

The helpful point Alex made is that our internal states as individuals affect our wellbeing as a wider society, and that in times of crisis and emergency – like now – there are different ways we can respond.

The first option will be familiar. “Fight–or–flight” (or flight, flight and freeze), first named in 1915, is a phenomenon which is excellent for keeping individuals or small groups like families safe in danger. A flood of cortisol and adrenaline ready our mind and muscles for action, whether it is attacking or running away. It is, however, a terrible tool in situations of collective threat, like a global pandemic, or indeed when facing an issue like climate change. Fight–or–flight reduces our ability to reason and analyse, to calmly weigh risk and to feel empathy. Instead it can drive us to blame, lash out and prioritise our own immediate survival. Complex collective threats are best tackled in clear headed, co–operative ways, acknowledging all that we hold in common, and fight–or–flight makes that more difficult.

There is however, an alternative response to situations of crisis. “Tend–and–befriend” was first proposed in 2000 by University of California Professor of Psychology Shelley Taylor, so has a shallower research pool than fight–or–flight, but is gaining traction as an alternative, instinctive response to threat in individuals and, potentially, societies. Tend–and–befriend is a much more pro–social response in which stress and threat cause us to reach out for others and care for them. Initially research suggested that men were more likely to respond to stress with a fight–or–flight response, and women with tend–and–befriend, but that gender binary is now being questioned.

This lens has changed how I see responses to the pandemic. Some of us are, or have been obviously in fight–or–flight, blaming, defending, and paying more attention to individual safety (stockpiling) than common concerns. This isn’t a judgemental point – fight–or–flight is instinctive and difficult to override without a lot of practice, and it’s also catching.

I’m also heartened however to see mass outbreaks of tend–and–befriend, in the shape of mutual aid groups, fundraising campaigns and charitable commitments.

So how do we develop an ability to react to collective threats with tend–and–befriend, rather than the counter–productive fight–or–flight?

There are many avenues to pursue here, including education, nudge interventions, and how we use our “collective nervous system” of social media. It’s also clear that religion, at its best, can and does play a part in this process. In fact one way of reading whole swathes of the New Testament is as training in how to stay out of fight–or–flight and instead lean into tend–and–befriend. It’s an anachronistic projection, but the ethical formation implicit in “turn the other cheek”, “in your anger do not sin”, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” would all involve a conscious overriding of the rush of cortisol and its instinctive, self–protective response. Similarly, the command to love your neighbour, and multiple parables including  the Good Samaritan all speak to tend–and–befriend as a response we should seek to develop, in situations of threat as much as at other times.

Words on a page may not have much power to help us change our instinctive responses, but it is entirely credible that collective rituals, repeated immersion in narratives that encourage tend–and–befriend, intentional practice (and, whisper it, divine help) may do so.


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 Image: Sanit Fuangnakhon/shutterstock.com

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is Theos’ Director. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Posted 28 April 2020

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