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Why should we help others when we're stressed?

We should help others who need it, even when we face problems in our lives.

Ok. This sounds like the sort of comment that gets a lot of social media likes but come on, let's get real.

Very few of us are going to do this. 

When we're stressed, we're the ones that need help. Our brains are marinated in stress hormones, making us more judgemental and less kind. We're not likely to be helping anyone.

But what if told you, let's forget the doing good and helping others bit. What if helping others when you're stressed is actually really good for you?  And I don't mean this is some abstract way. I mean being better off tangibly.

winnie the pooh friends.jpg

You shouldn't need too much convincing about this, but generally, prolonged stress is bad for health. Of course, a certain level of stress is useful to keep us pushing harder. But the human body was never intended to handle prolonged periods of stress, which causes unfavourable biological consequences:

  • blood pressure goes up

  • our amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression) becomes more active and even can even grow physically larger. We become more anxious, more conservative, with shorter tempers

  • our pre-frontal cortex (the region of the brain related to rational thought and decision) can become thinner). In fact, prolonged stress can literally (I'm using this correctly) shrink our brains. 

  • our memories become poorer

  • stress hormones (glucocorticoids) interact with other hormones like insulin, causing us to store more body fat, which leads to further health issues. 

Empirically, the ill-effects of excessive or long-term stress is well captured in literature. This study of almost 29,000 people showed that those who reported a lot of stress and felt that stress had indeed impacted their health were 43% more at risk of premature death.
(there is a caveat to the findings, which we explore here. But for our purposes here, it is broadly accurate that stress is bad for health)

We're stressed when we have a lot on our plate. We feel the pressure (whether this is real or created by ourselves or a combination) to do things better and faster. We fear the consequence of missing a certain goal. And in times like this, it feels natural to spend all our time worrying about ourselves.

But like many things in life, what we can do to help ourselves is counterintuitive.

This 2013 study by Michael Poulin et al examined 846 individuals, from age 34 to 93

  • The experimenters first asked these individuals questions on how much stressed they have experienced in the past year.

  • They then asked, how much time participants had spent helping out friends, neighbours, and people in the community.  

  • Finally, the dates of death were captured through public records.

And what were the results? ​ 

||  Major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, increased the risk of dying by 30%. This is consistent with what we went through above. But people who spent time caring or others showed absolutely zero increased incidence of premature stress-related deaths. That's right, Zero!

Just one study isn't completely convincing. But it becomes a far stronger case once we examine the underlying biology.

First a quick introduction to a hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin has gained quite the reputation in recent years, most popularly portrayed as a "love hormone". When we experience positive (and especially physical) contact provided by friends and family, oxytocin gets pumped out in large quantities. Mothers holding their infants are marinating in oxytocin, making them feel really good and strengthening the bonds of love with their child. Similarly, when you get a hug from someone you love, this groovy love hormone is produced, you feel great about life, you're a winner.

But oxytocin also plays another role besides the good feelings of being loved (interestingly, there is also a darker side to oxytocin - nothing is ever so simple in neurobiology - but this falls outside the scope of this discussion)

Oxytocin is pumped out by our pituitary gland as part of our stress response. While more prominent stress hormones increase your attention to cope with incoming threats, Oxytocin drives us to seek support from others. It makes us crave the physical contact with people we love. Remarkably, it also makes us more empathetic. It makes us more inclined to help and support other people

(Piglet and Winnie the Pooh in the picture above perfectly demonstrates the beauty of Oxytocin.)

But oxytocin doesn't just make us feel good. It offers protection to our bodies against stress. It's a natural anti-inflammatory. It keeps our blood vessels relaxed when we are tensed up. And most incredibly, there are oxytocin receptors in your heart that helps heart cells regenerate and heal from the damage caused by stress.

What an amazing evolutionary trait. Our biological stress response has an inbuilt mechanism to tell us, when we are feeling stressed, when life is difficult, don't keep it all within us. Find someone you trust to share how you feel, but also notice others who are struggling and help and support them. In an alternative but equally meaningful sense, Oxytocin lives up to its moniker as the "love hormone". 

Or as Stanford professor and author of the "Upside of Stress" Kelly McGonigal puts it: 

"So when you reach out to others under stress, 
either to seek support or to help someone else, 
you release more of Oxytocin. 
Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. 
I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, 
and that mechanism is human connection.

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