Stress can make you moody and depressed. It can affect your judgment. It can cause insomnia, headaches, an upset stomach and a whole lot more. But did you know that it can make you more altruistic?
A new study in Psychological Science found that when we’re in situations in which our capacity for self-control is lowered or lessened, we are actually inclined to put aside our own concerns, however pressing they may be, and do what benefits those we are close to — that is, it can make us “pro-social.” It’s a finding of interest because previous research and theorizing have “suggested that human behavior is automatically driven by selfish impulses (e.g., vengeance rather than forgiveness).”
When we have too much to do in too little time, are short on sleep and are feeling hungry, the likelihood of our reaching out that helping hand to a stranger — giving up our place in line or giving a dollar to someone on the subway — is less. For worse or for better, a need to preserve the self takes over. But according to the new study, the opposite occurs when we are dealing with someone we know.
As lead author Francesca Righetti, assistant professor of psychology at VU University in Amsterdam, says in Time magazine, “in communal relationships, the habitual behavior is to take care of each other’s needs.”
As social creatures, our inclination is not to act in our own self-interests in times of stress, but to assist others who are close to us. We are inclined to promote their well-being, even if we are not really interested in doing so and even if there is a cost to ourselves, such as finding ourselves in an embarrassing situation.
To test their ideas, Righetti and other researchers from the U.S. and the Netherlands studied how people responded when they were distracted and when they were not, as we tend to be less in control of ourselves when distracted. The researchers deliberately distracted some study participants by having them watch a short video that contained subtitles; other volunteers saw the video without the subtitles.
All of the participants were then asked about sacrifices they would make for friends or partners, such as performing an embarrassing task for a loved one or going out with people they did not like but whom their partners or friends did. The result was that those who were distracted were found to be more willing to do whatever might benefit them. Stress, that is, can actually help to promote good habits.
In and of itself, stress is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is simply the body’s “normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way.” We respond to danger, to the potential dissolution of the self, by going into its “flight or fight” reaction. Stress becomes a health concern if we repeatedly experience it and the “flight or fight” response — which raises blood pressure, tenses the muscles and makes it hard to focus on small details in the face of the larger, impending worry — as your body is then routinely going into overdrive.
On a very personal note, I found the study of interest as my husband and I live with a fair amount of stress in our lives in caring for our severely autistic son Charlie. We love him deeply and love taking care of him but it would be inaccurate to say that caring for him is not without its moments of supreme anxiety. Take, for example, when Charlie has a panic attack in the car on the highway or when I start to think too much about what will happen to him when he is an adult and we are not around to take care of him. We do try to alleviate our own and Charlie’s stress, but some is always inevitable.
Righetti and her colleagues’ study is not the definitive word on this topic but does make the intriguing point that stress is not necessarily always something to be avoided. We can not only learn to live with stress, but can seek to channel it to others’ advantage and even to our own.
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