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Hero amid the bullets: The power of female friendship

Following his visit with survivors of the deadly Colorado shooting spree, President Barack Obama said he heard many remarkable stories of heroism.

The anecdote he chose to share with the nation, though, wasn’t about a parent saving a child, or a boyfriend tending to a girlfriend. It was the moving account of best friends - two young women whose bond was put to the ultimate test when one was shot in the neck.

With blood spurting from her wound, 19-year-old Allie Young urged her friend, Stephanie Davies, 21, to flee. “Stephanie refused,” the president recounted, and even as bullets continued to fly she applied pressure to Young’s wound with one hand, and called 911 with the other. Davies helped carry a bleeding Young across two parking lots to an ambulance. “Because of Stephanie’s timely actions, I just had a conversation with Allie downstairs and she is going to be fine,” Obama said.

The aid of such a caring friend is a shining example of how important and powerful a friendship can be, experts say. While tales of male heroes saving loved ones and friends are deservedly celebrated in our culture, stories of female friendship often center around competition rather than heroism. But Davies’ courageous decision to help her friend shows a deep friendship that even in a fight-or-flight crisis moment, she couldn’t abandon her injured pal.

“The bond between these two women was so strong that the choice was to stay and in a sense fight to save her friend’s life,” says Lisa Smith, Ph.D, director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. “It doesn’t get any stronger than that.”

Smith calls Davies' behavior "an amazing act of selflessness."

“She was putting her friend’s life on the same level or maybe even higher than her own,” Smith said. “She was willing to stay and protect her at a large risk to herself."

Staying with her friend in a critical time shows “the power of feeling deeply connected to somebody in a loving way and what that can do in terms of being selfless and thoughtful and caring,” says Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist and TODAY contributor.

For women, female friends are "not only important, they’re necessary,” Ludwig says.

While most of us are lucky enough not to be in life-threatening situations, friends are still essential to our well-being, experts say.

Friends help us “in terms of feeling connected, feeling normal, helping to feel better about ourselves and our lives,” Ludwig says. “In the most extreme cases, we see it as life-saving (physically, as in the shooting), but very often, our friendships are life-saving emotionally.”

Smith notes that female friends can help each other in ways small and big. They help buffer life’s stressful situations, and having friends can ward off depression and anxiety, she said. That support can start as early as elementary school, with girls protecting each other from bullying.

“The support of friendship can be expressed in a thousand different ways,” Smith said -- even the simple gesture of bringing ice cream to a friend. “These are small, supportive gestures that women can do for each other every day. Those social supports really do help in the best and the tougher times.”

Being friends with another woman can provide support in a way that perhaps a parent or husband or male friend cannot, Ludwig says. “Our female friends understand our life experiences from a female perspective and in terms of being contemporaries,” she said.

“When female friendship works at its best, it’s almost like that cheerleader on the sidelines that gives us strength to move through our day,” Ludwig says. “They advise us, comfort us, support us, help us know that we’re not alone in the world.”  

And if you find yourself without a BFF, Smith recommends getting involved in activities that you value to find like-minded people.

“There may be more opportunity to reach out to other people than you might think,” Smith says. “If you get engaged in life and are open to saying hello to the person next to you, it can often blossom into a friendship.”

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