by Julie Snyder
You see them at the back of a restaurant, listening intently and talking seriously over a cup of coffee. You hear laughs and giggles as they walk by. They're pushing strollers, jogging or sitting together talking.
Who are these women? Are they part of some special group? Nope, they're friends.
Women need their female companions. We make friends, not just because it's convenient or fun, but because it's essential to our health and happiness.
Helen Keller wrote, "Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light." Most women and numerous scientific studies would agree.
A UCLA study on stress research has turned decades of results upside down. Scientists had believed that when people experienced stress, it triggered a series of hormones that set up the body to stand and fight or run like the wind.
Now researchers suspect that women are wired differently than men and come "hardwired" with a third option -- tending or befriending.
Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., one of the study's authors, says that the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, buffering the fight or flight response. It encourages her to tend children and gather with other women. As she tends or befriends, more oxytocin is released, countering stress and producing a calming effect.
What's the first thing you do when you're stressed? The first thing might have been "firmly" putting that sack of groceries on the counter after getting back from the store. The next thing you might do is call a good friend and trash that "jerk" who cut you off on the freeway and almost caused a wreck!
"When women get stressed, our instinct is often to find a friend and talk things through," says Joan Borysenko, PhD, author of "Inner Peace for Busy Women." Touch and talking release the hormone oxytocin, which calms your mind and body. It doesn't end there, however.
Studies show that having a group of close female friends helps us to sleep better, improves our immune systems, staves off dementia and results in longer lives.
• A study from Flinders University in Australia shadowed 1,500 women for a 14-year period. Regardless of the strength of their family bond, women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends. Friends protected against obesity, depression, and heart disease, among other health problems.
• A study from Stanford University found that late-stage breast cancer patients who had a circle of confidants had a better chance for survival than others.
• The Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments, and the more likely they were to lead a joyful life. The results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or obesity.
Why is it so hard to find time to be with our friends? When we get caught up with our families, jobs and responsibilities, our friendships get pushed to the back burner. Our female friends might be the only ones who can reach out, get through to us and help slow us down.
As moms, we benefit from talking to other moms who've been "there." As wives, we relate better to women who've shared our similar situations. We experience an emotional connection with our girlfriends different from the intimacy and emotional bond we feel with our spouses or partners.
Women have fewer friends now than in previous decades, one-third less than they did in the 1980s according to a 2006 study from Duke University.
An important question for today's woman might be, "How do we start and keep a friendship?"
Jenny Schroedel, a blogger for Boundless, shares the process that worked for her. She says that lowering expectations, keeping an open mind and patience are key.
• Lower expectations. Since having kids you might not have time to carry on long phone call or make spur of the minute decisions.
• Lose tunnel vision. When you insist on overly strict standards of behavior, you can miss the gift that's being offered.