Stress is often beneficial, helping us raise our performance to meet a critical deadline or to excel in an athletic competition. It's also key to our survival -- the body's natural response to threat and danger. However, long-term stressing can take a toll, leaving us vulnerable to a host of emotional and physical problems. Fortunately, there are a number of learned techniques for controlling its harmful effects. In addition, new research shows that our innate ability to bond, both by words and by touch, has a calming effect on the body.
A scientific literature review conducted by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education on behalf of Dignity Health shows that a simple gesture of empathy and concern makes us feel more connected. The review of published clinical studies examines how feelings of trust, safety, and comfort lower the body's stress-related responses and in turn improve heart health.
Showing a Little Compassion Goes a Long Way
When we feel connected to another person, our bodies respond in ways that help us feel calmer, particularly during a health crisis. A study in the medical journal Cancer showed that breast cancer patients who perceived their doctor as compassionate, warm, and caring during their initial interaction were less stressed in the months following surgery.
A different medical study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology compared two videotaped conversations between a physician and a woman with breast cancer. In one video, the physician was unemotional and simply laid out the risks and benefits of treatment options. In the other video, the conversation was enhanced with an additional 40 seconds of footage in which the doctor expressed support, sympathy, and compassion for the patient's difficult situation.
Breast cancer patients who watched this act of kindness were significantly less anxious than those who watched the first video. They were more likely to believe the doctor cared about the patient and wanted to involve the patient in decision-making -- behaviors associated with improved long-term management of stress-related bodily responses.
Paying It Forward
Research shows acts of kindness inspire others and come full circle, making compassionate people more receptive to social support and lowering stress-related reactions. A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that highly compassionate people who were praised during a public speaking performance had lower levels of a stress hormone, cortisol, than participants who received neutral feedback, regardless of their empathic makeup. The researchers concluded that individuals with a greater concern for others are better prepared to benefit from social support than individuals that show less compassion.
Reducing the Chronic Toll of Caregiving
Mindful self-compassion can relieve anxiety under conditions of chronic psychological pressure, such as caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease. A study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that eight weeks of yoga and meditation lowered caregivers' stressing levels -- indicated by smaller amounts of cortisol -- compared to a group of Alzheimer's caregivers who didn't participate in the mindfulness program. Participants also experienced changes in the part of the brain involved in controlling emotions. These changes have been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve sleep.
For more information about the link between social connection and stress reduction, visit The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.