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According to Science, Your Girl Squad Can Help You Release More Oxytocin

female friendships

As a lifelong introvert, I’ve always felt most comfortable hanging out with friends, boyfriends, coworkers, and pretty much anyone else one-on-one. (Intimate conversations: yes. Large group activities: resounding nope.) And though terms like #girlsquad stress me out — well, most group situations stress me out — I realize that I’ve obsessively relied on and returned to my core crew of girlfriends over the years.

Women don’t just experience the drive toward fight or flight — they also release oxytocin. This hormonal surge can compel women to “tend and befriend.”

Whether it was post-graduation 3 a.m. “what am I doing with my life?!” phone calls with my college friends, or humiliating 4th-grade crush-stalking incidents (no, not remotely weird that my best friend and I regularly showed up at my cute neighbor’s door to quiz him about what he’d be eating for dinner), my girlfriends have helped me stay sane and healthy over the years.

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Is there a science behind female friendships?

“Research shows that women, [possibly] more than men, need to maintain those connections. It increases serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone,” says Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT. Studies at Stanford seem to confirm this, as did a UCLA study showing that in times of stress, women don’t just experience the drive toward fight or flight — they also release oxytocin. This hormonal surge can compel women to “tend and befriend,” a.k.a., to protect their kids (if they have them), but also to connect with other women.

I’ve often turned to my women friends for the companionship and emotional sustenance that others find in their partners and children.

Maintaining those bonds becomes even more important as we grow older, according to Dr. Bash. “We get busier, with more responsibilities,” she says. “It makes us feel nurtured and validated to hang out with friends we can be totally ourselves [with], minus the outside pressures.”

That’s absolutely the case for NYC-based Aly Walansky, 38, who notes that her girlfriends give her “no judgments,” just a sort of candid, no-holds-barred support that she doesn’t find anywhere else. “With guys, or my family, I have to temper things so as not to offend them or make things weird. But my girlfriends will tell me the truth, and that’s everything,” she explains.

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Julia Antenucci, 25, of Rochester, also draws comfort from the uncomplicated acceptance her “squad” of college girlfriends offer her. Though they’ve scattered across the state since graduating, they make time to get together at least a few times a year, and their connection doesn’t wane.

“I’ve never felt as capable of being myself ... than when I’m around these women,” Antenucci says via email. “It’s beautiful to know that no matter where I am in the world ... there are these women that truly know me, love and support me. It’s a feeling of safety that I’ve never felt before, not even with my family.”

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I know what she means.

Though it might sound cliché, for many single women like me, girlfriends really do become closer than family. You might see them more or confide in them more. As a long-time singleton lacking many of the traditional trappings of adulthood (no husband or kids, no 9-5 office job), I’ve often turned to my women friends for the companionship and emotional sustenance that others find in their partners and children.

Can girlfriends help cure feelings of loneliness?

While this wasn’t a conscious choice on my part (I’d still love to find a partner, thanks), I’m grateful to have the close friends I do. Especially because, in recent years, studies have repeatedly shown that loneliness can be lethal. According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, it’s the perception that one is alone — not the objective reality of how many connections someone has — that creates the most damage. This “pathological loneliness,” which can contribute to a variety of health problems, is growing more and more common.

The reasons for our growing social isolation are myriad, but technology, social media, and the perils of social comparison play a clear part.

“Even 10 years ago, people would go out to a coffee shop and actually talk to people,” Dr. Bash notes. “Nowadays in America, we’re so isolated. With social media, technology, and texting ... people feel more alone. Even if they’re not physically alone, they're addicted to constantly seeing what everyone else is doing.”

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This dichotomy between our simultaneous hyperconnectedness — having the perpetual ability to check up on faraway friends — and many Americans’ rising sense of emotional alienation make our real-life, face-to-face friendships even more important to sustain.

What matters isn’t how you find your people, it’s that you do find them, or at least you try.

“We have to make those friendships a top priority,” Dr. Bash says. “Schedule girls’ nights and lunches with friends! Do it ahead of time.”

Bash also suggests picking up the phone and having, you know, actual conversations instead of texting or chatting on Facebook. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Internet can’t be a tool to help you make or nurture friendships. On the contrary, many women build meaningful friendships through Facebook groups, neighborhood listservs, even various Tinder-style friend-finding apps, like Hey Vina and Peanut.

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In fact, Julia Antenucci says that one of her biggest support systems is a New York City-based email listserv of women who regularly check in via email, as well as meeting up in person to plan activist events. Because Antenucci no longer lives in NYC, she only knows most of these women from behind a screen.

Yet “it’s been my lifeline and proverbial digital watering hole since I joined last year,” she says, noting, “Though I can’t speak to this [personally] as a cis white woman, I know similar online groups have been really helpful for minorities and queer individuals ... as ‘girlsquads’ where solidarity might not otherwise be present.”

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At the end of the day … do you need a #girlsquad?

Of course, not every friendship is the same, and while it’d be pretty cool if every woman in America had a legitimate girl-gang to confide in, vacation with, and plan world domination among, everyone is different.

Not every woman needs — or wants — a “squad.”

For some women, just a few close friends can be more than enough. Julia W., 33, who lives in California, says, “My ‘girl squad’ is small. I have these units of 2: My two best friends from high school. My 2 best friends from college. My 2 best friends from networking.”

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What matters isn’t how you find your people, it’s that you do find them, or at least you try. “Be proactive,” Dr. Bash reminds. “Make that a priority.” And if you don’t feel satisfied with the number or quality of friendships in your life right now, it’s not too late to work to improve it.

“[Often] we have acquaintances we’d like to be better friends with. If we make the first move and ask them to lunch or coffee, that can help,” Dr. Bash says.

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Of course, you can also get out there and do more things. Take classes, join a group or a club, and go out on your own to fun local events. “[It’s about] putting yourself in a situation where you will be interacting with people,” Bash notes.

And don’t let petty differences hinder you from reaching out to an old friend you may have diverged from a bit. As Dr. Bash says, “We need to try to be patient and empathetic with our friends, even if we’re in a different place. Maybe your friend has a new baby and isn’t as available; maybe you get frustrated. But [try to] remain supportive and available. Even as we go through different phases, we’re going to come back together later on.”


Laura Barcella

Laura Barcella is an author and freelance writer currently based in Brooklyn. She has written for the New York Times, RollingStone.com, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Week, VanityFair.com, and many more.

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