Stress at home, work, or school could leave people feeling vulnerable or powerless when faced with a difficult situation. Delivering a speech, presenting a proposal at work, or even getting on a plane for the first time, may generate psychological stress. Now researchers believe dealing with stress may have gotten a little bit easier for those feeling under pressure. According to a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, discussing problems with people in similar situations can reduce cortisol levels and relieve tension.
Stress can be both a psychological and physical reaction to several life factors. The Mayo Clinic says when the brain perceives a threat, it signals the body to release several hormones to produce a response, known as the "fight-or-flight.” Until the threat is gone, the body will continue to be in a tense state. Stress symptoms do not only affect the body, but also thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or pain felt in the shoulders and arms are common physical symptoms of stress that can lead to detrimental health issues if left untreated.
In a study published in the Progress In Cardiovascular Diseases journal, a team of researchers found sudden emotional stresses such as anger can lead to heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even sudden death. While this mostly occurs in people who already have heart disease, some people are not aware until acute stress causes a heart attack or leads to other serious health complications. Therefore, researchers suggest reducing stress levels will not only have a positive effect but also protect a person’s health in the long run.
Practicing stress management techniques to get the body to return to a normal relaxed state is essential. This begins with an assessment of how a person reacts to stress, and making changes if these coping strategies are unhealthy. Smoking, drinking too much, using pills or drugs to relax, and procrastinating may temporarily result in reduced stress, but they can end up causing more damage. The only way someone can be in control of their stress is to assume responsibility in how they create or maintain it.
A team of researchers from California and Belgium sought to examine how sharing your feelings with someone who is currently having a similar emotional reaction to the same situation could offset negative outcomes associated with that particular feeling. Fifty-two female undergraduate students were paired off to do public speaking while being taped by researchers from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in the study.
Prior to speech, the pairs of participants were told to discuss with one another what they were feeling about making their speeches. To carefully evaluate stress, the participants’ cortisol levels — a hormone secreted in higher levels during the body’s “fight of flight” response — were measured before, during, and after their speeches. The researchers hypothesized those who perceived the situation as a greater threat would have high cortisol levels, but talking with someone who was emotionally similar would reduce and alleviate the tension from this greater stress.
The findings revealed sharing a threatening situation with someone who shares the same emotional state helped the participants decrease their stress. Overall, there was a reduced cortisol response and lower stress reported among the participants who feared public speaking. The study highlights the benefit of spending time and talking with someone whose emotional response is similar to yours.
Emotional similarity may be used as an effective stress managing technique for those who fave a threatening situation. "Imagine you are one of two people working on an important project: if you have a lot riding on this project, it is a potentially stressful situation," said Sarah Townsend, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, in the news release. "But having a coworker with a similar emotional profile can help reduce your experience of stress."
Generating an emotional similarity does not only extend to public speaking, but also the workplace. Talking to coworkers about similar work struggles can help solve common problems and increase productivity. It also raises the question for managers on how they can encourage emotional similarity among their employees.
Kim HS, Mesquita B, and Townsend SSM. Are You Feeling What I’m Feeling? Emotional Similarity Buffers Stress. Social Psychological & Personality Science. 2013.
Steptoe A, and Strike PC. Psychosocial factors in the development of coronary artery disease. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2004.