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Published November 16, 2011, 11:30 PM

Positively Beautiful: A night out with the girls is good for you

I went to the movie “Bridesmaids” this summer with my sister, three sisters-in-law and another friend. We all laughed so hard our cheeks hurt. It got me thinking about the importance of female friendship.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices blogger, INFORUM

I went to the movie “Bridesmaids” this summer with my sister, three sisters-in-law and another friend. We all laughed so hard our cheeks hurt.

It got me thinking about the importance of female friendship.

I am lucky to be in regular contact with women I’ve known since fourth grade. And I have small groups of college and medical school friends that have hung on through the years. Even though many miles separate us, and we don’t see each other in person often, it doesn’t seem to matter.

From “The Golden Girls” to “Friends” to “Sex in the City” to the above-mentioned “Bridesmaids” movie and beyond, media seems to understand the power of girlfriends. I feel deep gratitude for the friends that took me in for countless holidays when I lived far from family, and even shuttled me around for months after I broke my leg and couldn’t drive. Counting on girlfriends in good times and in bad is what we women do.

Studies show that our girlfriends may play a far greater role in our lives than we might imagine.

Research on women and stress provide strong evidence that those chats with your girlfriends are vital to your health and may well help prolong your life. In June 2001, the renowned Harvard Medical School’s Nurses’ Health Study concluded that women’s social networks play an important role in enhancing our health and quality of life. The study went so far as to conclude that not having at least one good confidante is as detrimental to a woman’s health as being overweight or a heavy smoker.

Jeff Zaslow, the author of “The Girls from Ames” followed a group of girlfriends, now in their 40s, who have known each other since childhood. He states, “I envy the ease with which women share their lives. I envy the vital ways they support each other emotionally, especially as they get older. Women’s friendships are face to face: They share their feelings, their emotions, their secrets. By contrast, men’s friendships are side by side: We do things together. We play golf or go to football games.”

Shelley E. Taylor, author and a world-renowned expert on stress and health, contends that women are genetically hard-wired for friendship as a means of coping with stress. And, she says, we selectively seek out friendships with women – not men – when the chips are down. Taylor theorizes that a common female stress response is what she calls “tend and befriend.”

She says our evolutionary heritage suggests women who formed strong bonds with one another were more apt to survive – as were their offspring – than those who did not.

Over time, women have learned to turn to one another for support and solace and have thus become crucial to one another in times of stress. For most women, this protective effect trumps that provided by a spouse.

Hormones may play a role here too.

Oxytocin, known as a calming hormone, is released into a woman’s bloodstream after childbirth to nurture the mother/baby bond. Interestingly, this is also released during stress and may be one of the driving forces behind forming and maintaining close social bonds, because it enhances the ability to nurture and be nurtured. “Because estrogen increases oxytocin’s effects, it’s likely to be more important in women’s stress response than men’s,” Taylor says.

Here’s to Girl’s Night Out, spa days, good conversation and great girlfriends.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com to share her thoughts on beauty, wellness and life.