You’ve tried it all. From deep breathing, to taking a nap, to venting to your friends, and yet you still feel stressed.
Why not try a little kindness?
Stress seems to be an epidemic these days. And if we’re not careful, today’s stress can become tomorrow’s anxiety, depression, or worse. But as we seek ways to help ourselves, perhaps the solution actually lies in helping others.
It turns out that when we put our own troubles aside and focus our energy on being kind and helping others, our stress levels decrease. Kindness positively impacts hormonal levels in our bodies, leading to both mental and physical health benefits.
For example, those who strive to be kind have 23 percent less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population. Kindness also stimulates the production of serotonin (the feel-good hormone), helping calm the mind and elevate mood.
Not only do stress levels decrease, but so does blood pressure and pain level. Being kind to others releases chemicals like endorphins and oxytocin. Oxytocin dilates blood vessels, which in turn helps decrease blood pressure, while endorphins act as our body’s natural pain killers.
And if you’re feeling a little sluggish, try spreading some kindness for a natural energy boost.
One study reported about half the study participants felt stronger and more energetic after helping others, with many participants saying they felt calmer, less depressed, or had greater feelings of self-worth.
A Yale University study published in Clinical Psychological Science found that even basic politeness helps to decrease stress levels. Participants were asked to track how often they performed prosocial behaviors every day over a two week period. Performing behaviors as simple as asking someone if they need help, or opening the door for someone, led participants to rate their mood as more positive when compared to days when they were not as helpful. The authors point out that “[These] results suggest that even brief periods of supporting or helping others might help to mitigate the negative emotional effects of daily stress.”
And what better way to help others than by doing volunteer work? Studies show that those who volunteer reap just as many benefits as those they are helping.
Research finds people 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations are less likely to die early, a staggering 44 percent less likely.
But when helping others, it turns out that motives matter. A study published in Health Psychology found that people who volunteer with some regularity live longer, but it’s interesting to note that these benefits were seen only if they were volunteering to truly help others, rather than to make themselves feel better or look good to others. In other words, their motives had to be altruistic rather than self-serving.
So what if we find ourselves a little rusty at flexing our kindness muscle? Don’t despair. Kindness can be learned.
“It’s kind of like weight training; we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help,” Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author, wrote in a 2013 paper on the brain and compassion.
And the great thing is, kindness is contagious. Good deeds catch on like a yawn, which means kindness in a crowd can spread like ripples through a pond.
Why not give it a try? Just one act of kindness can make the difference between a good day and a bad day. So make it a good day, not just for yourself, but for the person you’re helping and those witnessing your kindness.
In the words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the purpose of life is “To serve others and do good.” If research is any indication, acts of kindness and serving others may also be the recipe for combating stress and maintaining good health.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.