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Wellness and Personal Development

Socialization and Altruistic Acts as Stress Relief

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Socialization

As we mentioned in our previous discussion on social support, humans are inherently social beings. Socialization, or enjoying other people's company and maintaining a sense of connectedness to others, is an important component of stress reduction. Joining a club or group, chatting online, calling a friend on the phone, or hanging out with family are all examples of socialization. These activities decrease a sense of loneliness while promoting feelings of safety, security, belonging and enjoyment.

Social support seems to affect our balance of hormones. Adequate amounts of social support are associated with increases in levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which functions to decrease anxiety levels and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system calming down responses. Oxytocin also stimulates our desire to seek out social contact and increases our sense of attachment to people who are important to us. Stressed people who have adequate levels of social support receive an oxytocin boost which helps them feel less anxious, more confident in their ability to cope, and more drawn to other people (thus perpetuating the positive cycle of social support).

Socialization also directly impacts our stress levels in multiple ways. First, socialization increases a hormone that decreases anxiety levels and make us feel more confident in our ability to cope with stressors. In addition, spending time with others directs our energy outward (rather than inward). If you are focused on reaching out to other people, you are temporarily distracted from your own circumstances, pain, or stress levels. People who reach out to others can rely on those individuals for help and emotional assistance in the future. Next, people who are socially connected feel wanted, included, and cared for. These individuals can talk through problems and share feelings with others (which can decrease stress feelings). Time spent socializing can strengthen your sense that life has meaning and purpose and increase your mood; all factors that can help protect you against the negative effects of stress.

Here are some strategies that you can use to increase socialization:

  • Initiate interactions with friends and family. Call them, invite them over, have a party, exercise together, eat at a restaurant, etc.
  • Introduce yourself to neighbors and other people you come into contact with frequently.
  • Join groups or take classes that interest you (religious groups, civic groups, service groups, hobby groups, exercise groups, etc.).
  • Create a profile on a dating website, or describe yourself anonymously on a free classifieds service like CraigsList (where interested people can email you anonymously).

Keep in mind that quality, rather than quantity counts when it comes to interpersonal relationships. In other words, surrounding yourself with a large number of people that you don't know very well is less effective than having 2 or 3 close confidants when it comes to successfully reducing stress. In light of this idea, once you have established relationships, it is important to devote some time cultivating them. Reciprocity (give and take) is essential to maintaining healthy relationships. You need to strike a balance between listening and being listened to, supporting another while being supported, and so on.

Finally, assertiveness skills (saying "no" to friends and family when it is appropriate; see our discussion of assertiveness and interpersonal skills in a later section) are also important to ensure that socialization serves a stress reducing, rather than a stress inducing experience. If other people start to make unreasonable demands upon your time, resources and energy, these relationships can start to become yet another stressor, rather than a way to decrease negative stress levels.

Altruistic acts

Being altruistic means helping others or doing good deeds without focusing on recognition or reward for yourself. Even though the point of altruism is focusing on others, this type of behavior can go a long way toward reducing stress. The act of giving can activate neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain and nervous system) associated with positive feelings, decreasing anxiety and worry, and making people feel stronger and more energetic.

In addition, altruism decreases stress by virtue of the outward focus (much like socialization). Focusing on and helping others in need (especially those who are less fortunate than you), can provide you with a sense of perspective on how fortunate you are. You can spend more time being thankful for the things you have (e.g., good health, adequate food, money, safe place to sleep, etc.) and less time pining for things that you feel you lack (e.g., expensive t.v., large home, fancy car, etc.). Helping others with their problems can also help you gain a more positive perspective on the things in life that are truly causing you stress.

Altruistic individuals have better life adjustment overall and tend to see life as more meaningful. In addition, altruism is associated with better marital relationships, a decreased sense of hopelessness, less depression, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem. Altruism also tends to neutralize negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function.

If you choose to incorporate altruistic acts into your stress management plan, it's important to select activities that fit with your personality, financial situation, and time budget. Otherwise, these generous acts may start to take on the tone of stressful obligations and start to increase, rather than decrease, your perceived stress levels. For instance, making a donation of money or time to your favorite charity, taking a meal (or a gift card for a meal) to a family with a new baby or someone who is ill, extending the time on someone's parking meter, paying a toll, offering to babysit for a new mother or father, or provide respite to a caregiver who needs a short break to recharge can all be way to help others.