A popular strategy to address stress build up, advised by many psychologists and counsellors alike, is to find a way to physically release our frustrations and anger in safe, neutral manner – like using a punch bag or beating a pillow. But while this approach has gained widespread acceptance is there any good evidence to show that it actually helps? The answer is no. Furthermore there is fairly convincing evidence to show that venting anger in this way can actually fan rather than extinguish the flame. Spending a couple of minutes in a quiet room, once we have become really frustrated or upset, has a far better outcome.
So what works? Exercise, massage, meditation, breathing exercises and practices such as yoga can be effective stress and anger antidotes. But are there any other simple things we can do to prevent stress build up? It seems that one of the most effective approaches does not require long and expensive sessions with a therapist or hours bending your best friend’s ear. Whether a person has suffered bereavement, betrayal or been diagnosed with a terminal illness there is something we can do to help that takes minutes not months of therapy. In Professor Wiseman’s book :59 SECONDS – think a little change a lot he refers to it as the ‘benefit finding’. Research at the University of Miami showed that if people focused on the benefits that flowed from some incident that had had a negative effect on their lives, rather than focusing on the anger they felt, many positive effects were experienced. For instance, the participants felt much more forgiving towards those who had hurt them and were less likely to seek revenge or avoid them. And, more importantly, these positive benefits turned out to be real and long term.
Prof. Wiseman therefore recommends that we spend a few moments thinking about the positive aspects resulting from any particular event that is causing us stress and ask the following sorts of questions:
- Have we become aware of personal strengths we did not realise we had prior to the event?
- Has the event made us appreciate certain aspects of our lives more than previously?
- Has the event strengthened an important relationship, or even the relationship with the person who hurt us?
- Have we become more skilful and confident in communicating our feelings, and possibly even ended a bad relationship?
- Have we developed greater feelings of compassion or forgiveness?
Other areas of research on simple and accessible ways of reducing stress levels suggest that classical music is very effective (and far superior to pop, jazz or even silence) as is getting in touch with our inner clown. People who use humour to cope with stress have particularly healthy immune systems and are 40% less likely to suffer heart attacks and stroke and live, on average, 4.5 years longer. Even watching a funny film scene (experimenters chose the ‘orgasm scene’ from When Harry met Sally) reduces blood pressure whereas watching a stressful scene (the opening scene from the war film Saving Private Ryan) significantly raises blood pressure.
Other research supports the notion that praying for others’ happiness and well-being helps to reduce stress levels and improve our own sense of well-being. But if we pray for things for ourselves, such as an improvement in our own material situation, no such benefits result. No surprises there!
For dog owners the good news is that you suffer less stress and depression and have better chances of staying healthy or recovering quickly if you get sick. Heart-attack dog owners are nine times more likely to survive the year than non-dog owners. To counter the possibility that dog owners are naturally happier people, non dog-owning hypertensive New Yorkers were recruited and randomly allocated a dog. After six months it became clear that dogs are more effective than commonly used drugs at controlling high blood pressure. Perhaps, more interestingly, none of the people randomly allocated dogs for the study opted to return their dog – they felt so much happier with a dog.
Several theories have been advanced to account for this dog effect (cats don’t confer similar benefits) but it seems that one of the most important benefits is the social one. Quite simply, dogs help a person make friends. In one study one out of every ten people stopped to talk to a person walking a Labrador (the chat rate was much lower with people walking Rotweillers so choose your dog carefully if you want the full range of health benefits). Social isolation and loneliness have consistently been shown to be associated with much higher stress levels, rates of disease and mortality. So while people are the cause of much of our stress we cannot live without them, and should rather find effective ways to minimise our stress levels and maximise our and others’ chances of happiness and well-being.