Pay it forward to help relieve stress
The winter holidays are a busy time for many – gifts to buy and social commitments to honor. Now, a new study suggests doing good deeds for others may be the key to managing stress.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, surveyed 73 people 18 to 44 years old, tracking their daily stress levels, mental health and “prosocial” behaviors (proactively doing things to benefit others). In the end, they found that increasing prosocial behaviors above normal levels significantly decreases the negative impact of stress.
“Social connectedness is very important to emotional well-being,” says Dr. Asad Zaman, internal medicine physician with Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Previous research has tied generosity to better overall health, and now we are also seeing positive effects on mental health. Perhaps we can all take a page from the Grinch this holiday season and remind ourselves that helping others can make us feel good, too.”
Though more research is needed, there are several theories as to how doing good deeds for others helps emotional well-being. Researchers said it could be that offering support to others helps distract people from their own stressful experiences, or that it may help them develop a larger sense of purpose and meaning in life. Physically, the release of oxytocin – commonly known as the love hormone – could play a role as well.
“It may seem counterintuitive to try to add more things to your ‘to do’ list in order to relieve stress, but small acts of kindness can be worked seamlessly into your daily life,” Dr. Zaman says. “They don’t have to be grand gestures. Increasing your charitable behavior won’t necessarily get rid of your stressors, but it can help you better cope with them, decreasing their negative effect on your daily life.”
Here are some helpful tips to start giving back:
- Hold the door open for someone, compliment a coworker on their new haircut or buy coffee for the person in line behind you.
- Add a few extra items to your grocery cart each time you go shopping and donate them to a local food pantry. Donation boxes are everywhere this time of year – schools, libraries, hospitals. You can deliver the food while doing other errands.
- Bring a snack or small gift to a neighbor you haven’t seen in a while.
- Write a short letter or card and send it to someone you love. As the world turns digital, an unexpected piece of mail is often a pleasant surprise.
- Make a charitable donation to a nonprofit organization. Large or small, they’re always needed.
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