Bert and Ernie, Corey and Shawn, and Tyrion and Bronn are all on-screen bromances that show the depths of bro-to-bro deep, platonic love. These on-screen close male friendships help young boys and men grow up to be more in tune with their emotions — and better equipped to handle stress. A recent study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found the social support one bro receives from another could buffer moderate stress and enhance resilience.

“A bromance can be a good thing,” said lead author Elizabeth Kirby, who started work on the study as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and continued it after assuming a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, in the news release.

Men get a bum rap for being emotionally detached in close relationships because they are assumed to be instinctively aggressive from a young age. In 1974, research psychologists Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin found that among boys there was far more “nonplayful” pushing, shoving, and hitting than among girls.

Social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz attributes this to the way society teaches children that fighting is more acceptable for men than women. Not only is male aggression seen as acceptable, but society begins to expect men will serve as the aggressors within a community. However, the way manhood is interpreted is ever-changing, with bromances displaying the “softer side” of male friendships.

In the new study, Kirby and her colleagues investigated how moderate stress (3 hours of acute immobilization) impacted how a group of male rats interacted when sharing a cage. First, water was repeatedly taken away from the rats as they were restrained for several hours in their cages. Once the water was returned to the cage, the rats shared it evenly, without any pushing or shoving. “It was very civil,” the researchers found.

The rats’ behavior correlated with the presence of high oxytocin levels (the cuddle hormone) in the brain’s hypothalamus. Oxytocin is immediately released after stress, because of the hormone’s role in social bonding. The rats were more likely to huddle together and touch more to alleviate the effects of moderate stress.

In the second experiment, researchers observed how the rats interacted with one another under severe stress (smell of fox urine) in the cage. The switch from a neutral odor to a predator odor was enough to cause a major change in these animals’ behavior. Rather than huddle or bond, they became aggressive.

When they observed the rats’ brains, researchers found there was a drop in oxytocin levels that eradicated social bonding. “You don’t see the rodent cuddling, you don’t see them showing increased prosocial behaviors,” said Kirby.

In this case of severe stress, social bonds weren’t a strong enough buffer for the rats, which became withdrawn as they feared for their lives. Mental health professionals see similar response from PTSD sufferers, who report feeling emotionally numb and avoid contact with others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

However, the researchers believe treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with oxytocin nasal sprays could be a way to encourage social interactions that could lead to recovery. The hormone could help bring people closer in times of stress.

Experiencing stress can actually stimulate social bonding — and build our resistance to stressful situations. Last month, researchers at the Ethological Society's annual meeting in Göttingen, Germany explored the effect bromances have on stress levels among male chimpanzee friendships. The researchers measured the level of glucocorticoid stress hormones in the chimps’ urine after they fought off enemy invaders in territorial battles in the wild in Uganda and the Ivory Coast. Unsurprisingly, they experienced high levels of stress, but having their best bros there calmed the chimps down.

The chimps went into battle with someone they trust, and who they share their food with. Here, bromances served as a protective social buffer. Fighting off enemy invaders was made inevitably less stressful by having a bro by their side.  

It’s important to keep stress to a minimum. Chronic stress can put your  health at risk by leading to problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, and memory and concentration impairment, among others.

Getting by with a little help from your friends could be the antidote to life’s stressors.

Source: Muroy SE, Long KLP, Kaufer D et al. Moderate Stress-Induced Social Bonding and Oxytocin Signaling are Disrupted by Predator Odor in Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016.