How Helping Others can Reduce Stress and Improve Mood

A man helping a woman through an obstacle during a team building exercise.

You may have heard at some point or another that helping others is a reward in itself, but there may be more truth to that than we previously realized. Studies show that helping others can actually be beneficial to ourselves as well. One such study, entitled “Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Stress in Everyday Life,” reveals that doing something nice for others can lower our overall stress levels. Published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the study assessed participants’ stress levels and “prosocial behavior” via text message prompting. In other words, the test subjects received a text which prompted them to record the day’s stresses as well as the kind acts they bestowed on others. This included holding a door open for someone or asking others if they needed assistance. They then rated their emotions both positive and negative, and assessed their overall mental health for the day.

Not surprisingly, days that are more stressful tend to take a greater toll on our mental health and our emotions. However, the study found that individuals who tend to do more for others tend to have better mental health and more positive emotions. This poses the question of what exactly is the best thing to do when we’re having a bad day? As it turns out, the quality of our day may vary depending on how we improve the days of others. This doesn’t mean neglecting ourselves, of course, but rather including others in our daily awareness. Alternatively, if we decrease our prosocial behaviors on days that we’re experiencing a lot of stress, we are more likely to experience negative thoughts and emotions, whereas if we increase our prosocial behavior on these days, we are more likely to have significantly reduced negative symptoms.

Five Ways Helping Others Improves Quality of Life

1. Distraction

Perhaps the most obvious reason for why prosocial behavior may benefit our overall mental health and mood is that it provides a much needed reprieve from the day’s stresses. When we’re focused on our own stress, we end up becoming preoccupied with what is “wrong” with our lives. When we reach out to help someone else, we are going to be less fixated on our own troubles, which means less feelings of stress.

2. Oxytocin Activation

The authors also theorize that prosocial behavior can initiate the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is involved in our feelings of trust and bonding with others, which can help counteract our negative emotions.

3. It Gives Life Greater Meaning

Positive social interactions with others can help us put our lives into perspective. One way it does this is by reminding us of what many of us value most in our lives – meaningful relationships with others whom we work with towards a shared goal. In other words, when we work with others and help each other we remind ourselves that life is more than just a day’s struggles, but rather a greater collection of experiences that we all share. Thus, it is important to work with each other to help make those experiences worthwhile.

4. Increasing Dopamine

As we’ve discussed previously, dopamine is the feel-good hormone we crave. Dopamine is normally released in response to reward-based activities such as sex or winning a game. However, the researchers found that there appears to be something inherently rewarding about being kind to others. In this way, this prosocial behavior becomes its own kind of reward-based activity, from which we enjoy the effects of dopamine.

5. Decreasing the Activity of the Sympathetic Nervous System

Many of us are familiar with how stress can activate our fight-or-flight response. When we’re stressed, we may be more inclined to panic. Stress can heighten anxiety as well as worsen the existing symptoms of depression. The researchers explain that the fight-or-flight response, however, is actually the result of stress being a part of the sympathetic nervous system.

What this means is that this system readies our bodies and minds to deal with stress and this is the response it can create. That being said, they point out that according to their findings, showing compassion can actually reduce our stress response. The same is true for expressing affection. It is for this reason that helping others can actually affect our body’s direct physiological response to stressful experiences.

In essence, when we feel stressed we tend to easily fall into an all-consuming negative mindset, in which we become less attuned to those around us. Consequently, we may find ourselves falling into a negative spiral. One way to avoid this path is to open up to responding to the needs of others. This can help reduce the likelihood of lashing out or hurting others because we are feeling hurt. Therapy can be a good way to learn techniques which can help us open up more, even in times of stress. Through this, we can begin to improve how we communicate with others, which, in turn, will improve how we are spoken to and treated as well. All of these things can and will contribute to a better mood and better overall mental health.

Call 800-378-9354 to schedule an appointment at our Boca Raton office.