Trump Stress With Your Thoughts

When You're Under the Gun, Hit Pause and Think About What You Value

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 04, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 4, 2005 -- Before you enter a stressful situation, take a moment to reflect on what's most important to you.

Doing so could tame your body's production of the stress hormone cortisol. So say psychology researchers from UCLA.

They tested that notion recently, and it worked. The plan boiled down to this:

  • Figure out what aspects of yourself or your life you hold most dear.
  • Reflect on those things when stress comes calling.

Those thoughts may be a shield against stress, or a "protective resource," researcher David Creswell tells WebMD.

Creswell is finishing his doctoral work in psychology at UCLA. His study appears in Psychological Science.

Affirming What Matters Most

Creswell's team studied the use of affirmations in college students who were about to take psychological stress tests.

That word -- affirmation -- needs a little explanation.

"Typically, when people think about affirmation, they think about Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live," says Creswell. "You know, 'I really like myself.' But this was a much more subtle activity -- just thinking about an important value."

Naming What You Value

A "value" wasn't necessarily a quality like honesty or optimism. Instead, it was what each person prized from their lives.

For instance, a value could be your skill as a father, your talent on the tennis court, your passion for politics, or your faith, says Creswell.

All highly held values mattered in Creswell's stress study. No particular topic helped more than others.

"That's a really important point, because these values can really shift among people," says Creswell.

Stress Test

Creswell and colleagues studied about 80 UCLA undergraduates.

The students took surveys to identify what they valued. Then they ranked their top five values.

Next, they were told to prepare a five-minute speech pitching themselves for a desirable on-campus job to a panel of people.

They were also told that after their speech, they would do some mental arithmetic for five minutes. They had to count backwards from 2,083 by 13s -- aloud and in front of an audience.

On top of that, the audiences weren't friendly. The speakers faced blank stares from the panelists, and the counters were barked at to go faster or start over if they messed up. Everyone took both tests, back to back.

The point was stress, as measured by before-and-after cortisol tests from the students' saliva. Cortisol is a hormone in your body that becomes elevated during times of stress -- emotional or physical.

In the Nick of Time

Right before the stress tests, the students took one more survey. Some got surveys about their No. 1 ranked value. Others got surveys about their No. 5 value.

The surveys forced the students to reflect on their values. Those asked about their top value had a smaller rise in cortisol during the stress test, the study shows.

Were they just distracted? Probably not, says Creswell. He notes that heart rate spiked for all of the students, which probably means they were equally engaged in the tasks.

"People weren't really aware that they were doing any type of affirmation activity directly in the 'I like myself' kind of way," says Creswell.

"Just this very subtle manipulation was enough to buffer them against the effects of stress," he adds.

Easier Said Than Done

When you're facing stress, it's "pretty tough" to pause and reflect on what you value, says Creswell.

But it might pay off in a calmer response and perhaps better performance, he says.

Creswell's study didn't measure performance. It also focused on brief but intense stress, with a little advance warning about the sort of stress they would encounter.

Do value affirmations help in chronically stressful situations, like taking care of someone who's sick or dealing with a chronic health problem? Creswell's team will study that next.

"The preliminary evidence suggests that it does," says Creswell.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: Creswell, Psychological Science, November 2005, vol 16: pp 846-852. David Creswell, psychology doctoral student, UCLA. News release, UCLA.
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