The unexpected upside of stress

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It turns out there really is a silver lining to every problem. A surprising study conducted at Penn State University has uncovered an actual benefit to feeling stressed out. The research team found that feeling stressed made study participants much more likely to both give others emotional support and empathy, and receive emotional support from another person. This effect even held true a full day after the participants first experienced the strain of stress.

Try as we all might to avoid it, stress is conducive to the human condition. Even when we don’t have all that much to worry about, it’s very common to still feel on edge. It’s been well established that stress takes a toll on our bodies, both mentally and physically. From serious psychological pressure to stomach cramps or even heart problems, modern science is constantly uncovering additional harmful side effects associated with the constant tension of stress. 

In many ways stress is an evolutionary leftover from a time when humans had to be much more responsive in order to simply survive on a daily basis. Today, though, stress is experienced by countless people as they go about daily, monotonous tasks like shopping or talking with others.

Stress is undoubtedly a net negative all things considered, but according to David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at PSU, his recent work indicates a tangible social benefit.

“Our findings suggest that just because we have a bad day, that doesn’t mean it has to be completely unhealthy,” Almeida says in a press release. “If stress can actually connect us with other people, which I think is absolutely vital to the human experience, I think that’s a benefit. Stress could potentially help people deal with negative situations by driving them to be with other people.”

No one enjoys feeling stressed out, and modern society is rife with supposed miracle cures for day-to-day stressors. The recent CBD craze over the last few years immediately comes to mind. Still, Almeida and his team were curious to investigate if a universal bodily reaction like stress may house hidden emotional benefits.

“Looking at the current research, I realized that a lot of studies looked at how emotional support is beneficial to other health outcomes, but not many looked at the determinants of social support,” explains Hye Won Chai, a Penn State graduate student in health and human development. “We thought that stress could be a facilitator in these interpersonal exchanges.”

In all, 1,622 people took part in the study. Each participant was interviewed every night for a total of eight nights. During the sessions researchers asked about the stress each person had experienced that day, and whether or not they had given or received any emotional support. As you can probably imagine, common stressors reported by the interviewees included arguments, pressure on the job or at school, and stressful episodes at home.

Stress gives back

After analyzing all of the interviews, the influence of stress on emotional support was very clear. On average, participants were more than twice as likely to give out or receive emotional support on days they were feeling stressed themselves. Remarkably, subjects were still 26% more likely to hand out or collect emotional support the following day.

There were also some noted differences among men and women. 

“Women tended to engage in more giving and receiving emotional support than men,” Chai comments. “This supports previous findings that women tend to seek more emotional support from other people when they’re stressed. In our study, men were also more likely to engage in emotional support on days they were stressed, but to a lesser extent than women.”

It isn’t all that surprising that feeling stressed out would cause people to seek out emotional support. We’ve all been there. Who hasn’t called a close family member or friend for an uplifting chat after an especially rough day? So while that finding didn’t shock the research team, they didn’t expect to discover that stress led to giving out emotional support as well. 

Almeida even considered the possibility that giving emotional support to someone else causes stress, but says he reconsidered after observing that participants were still lending a helpful ear to others a full 24 hours after feeling stressed themselves.

“We saw that someone experiencing a stressor today actually predicted them giving emotional support the next day,” Almeida notes. “This made me think that it’s actually possible that stress helps to drive you to other people and allows it to be ok to talk about problems — your problems, my problems.”

On a clinical level, the study’s authors believe their findings could help shape future stress treatment and coping options. If stress really does help us relate more closely with other people, more group-based intervention methods may just prove to be more effective than stress treatments that focus solely on the individual.

Meanwhile, on a societal level, this study can serve as an important reminder that we’re all in this ride called life together. When an individual is struggling with excessive stress, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that no one else is dealing with similar feelings. In reality, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Stress isn’t healthy, but that doesn’t mean talking about it openly should be frowned upon — in any setting, whether that be at home, the office, or among friends.

The full study can be found here, published in Stress & Health.