Stress Can Make You a Kinder Person…Sometimes

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.

Photo from Thinkstock


Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Treasure oneself and others

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener4 years ago


Ken W.
Ken W4 years ago

VU University in Amsterdam ------ Amsterdam just smoke some pot bye bye stress ........

Natasha Salgado
Past Member 4 years ago

Not sure about this one...I personally haven't experienced family or friends during stressful times being kinder---if anything they stay even keel. I'll have to pay closer attention when i'm faced with a stressful point---thanks

Mimi Jenkins
Mimi Jenkins4 years ago

We all experience some sort of stress in our's how we handle it that determines our level. Do we scream at the top of our lungs....take it out on everyone else? Or do we just let it pass and learn from it? I choose the latter.

Anne Moran
Anne Moran4 years ago


Sharon R.
Sharon R4 years ago

This study does not prove that stress can make one more altruistic, but rather that when distracted we might be more open to altruistic choices-- and that might be because we are not really thinking through the choices offered.

Valarie Snell
Valarie Snell4 years ago


Kate Raymond
Past Member 4 years ago

Interesting study, it goes some way towards explaining why the poorest people are often much better to their children than the richest.

Sheri K.
Sheri K4 years ago

I have also found out that while under stress, I help others to keep myself feeling better. Sometimes I embarrass myself in the midst...but it is worth it in the long run because I can look back on it and laugh to myself and with those involved at that time.
I do not like to hold grudges...but to live, laugh, love and learn by my mistakes. People are not perfect by any means and trying to live in a un-perfect world is a chore all by itself! Being a realist can sometimes hurt you...learn to let go sometimes and have fun and make your life count. Even IF you embarrass yourself, who cares...LOVE YOUR LIFE!