A recent study in “Stress & Health” suggests that while stress can lead to known negative health outcomes, such as depression or cardiovascular disease, there are also potential benefits.
When people are stressed, they are more open to receiving support because stress may drive them towards other people. What was surprising is that study participants were also more likely to give emotional support to other people. Experts shared their thoughts with Theravive on this positive aspect of stress and how it drives people to other people.
Psychologist Jill Stoddard, director of The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management says, “While stress results in the release of adrenaline, a hormone that can lead to health problems when released continuously, stress also releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that produces empathy and leads us to provide care and seek others just when we need them most.” This helps explain the physiological response a person may experience. Health Coach Erik Abramowitz add that his own stress is alleviated when he helps someone else. “I believe it has to do with the release of oxytocin which can suppress the release of cortisol and reduce blood pressure.”
Claire Barber, a mental health consultant, notes that reaching out to others reduces stress because social connections are a key component of health and well-being, a a key finding from the study. “Helping others can create a sense of mutual support and belonging which reduces feelings of isolation,” said Barber. “With this in mind, there is reason to believe that helping others when your mental health is compromised can help you in return.”
Brigitte Granger, Founder/CEO of Supporti, adds that a compelling benefit of social support is its protective effect on stress, not a help for bouncing back from it. “Research shows that social support can make you more resilient to stressful experiences,” says Granger. “In a cruel twist of irony, the cure for much of the stress people are experiencing from the COVID-19 pandemic is the one thing we're told we can't have: social closeness.”
An advantage of helping others in any capacity is that it moves the focus outwards. Dr. Shannon Irvine, founder of Epic Success Academy, suggests “fear and stress cannot co-exist at the same time as gratitude and outward focus. You cannot be in a state of fear, which triggers our fight-or-flight response, and in a state of forward motion, gratitude or helping others. As soon as you shift your focus to what other people need, the fight or flight neurochemicals calm down. The act of that alone allows the stress to reduce and your body's parasympathetic nervous system to relax. When the stress system calms down, you can think clearly.” Abramowitz notes this reaching outward is one treatment that is unlikely to cause harm. He said “helping people isn't a drug you can get at a pharmacy and has no negative side effects. What it does offer is a dose of positive mental, and stress-relieving effects.”
These benefits do not negate the fact that stress can still be harmful if it becomes chronic or is a result of trauma, thus contributing to additional psychological symptoms. Barber does have a word of caution before reaching out to others. “Your own mental health should always come first. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you believe that helping others will help you, then do so. However, if helping others brings more stress than comfort, you might need to focus on you for a little while longer. When it comes to mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it must be taken case by case, taking individual needs into consideration.”
What all can agree upon is that stress is a given - both good and bad, and isn’t something that we can or should, avoid. However, when managed appropriately, it could increase resilience when new challenges arise and drive people towards taking action.