Monday, May 21, 2012

Being stressed also makes you more social

Nobody likes being stressed out, and nobody likes spending time with people suffering from stress. It often reflects on your mood, but, as a recent study shows, that does not always have to be something bad. At the University of Freiburg, scientists discovered that men who are stressed are also more likely to behave in a social way. This peculiar correlation raises questions regarding what stress does with our body and our feelings. Finding out how we deal with it is very important, as previous studies have already shown that stress causes you to age faster and die younger.

Old beliefs
Men respond to stress rather differently than women, and male stress is often associated with increased aggressive behaviour. In biology, stress is frequently associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response, which, in a stressful situation, causes a male animal or human to either fight or flee from the situation. This would explain why men can behave more aggressively when stressed, as the fight-or-flight response is deeply rooted in our genes, as well as in many other intelligent organisms. Scientists from the University of Freiburg think aggressive behaviour is not necessarily a result of stress, and they tried to punch a hole in these old beliefs with their study by looking at social interaction.

Social behaviour
Their study comprised of inducing stress in male participants, and assessing their social behaviour. A standardized setup was developed to induce stress in the test subjects, which consist of a series of games that, when interacted with, allow the researchers to measure both positive and negative social behaviour. In this case, positive can mean things such as acts of reward, while something negative can be an act of punishment. A total of 67 male students attended the study. To assess whether the induction of stress succeeded, levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured, as well as heart rate. After evaluating the data, it appeared that men who showed high levels of stress acted in a more socially positive way than those who did not get stressed.

Although increasing social behaviour in stress situations may sound weird, there is an evolutionary explanation for it. Scientists call it tend-and-befriend, and it refers to the tendency to seek reciprocal protection, by getting involved with others. In times of stress, a friend could very well be just what you need, and the tend-and-befriend hypothesis provides an explanation for a social approach to stress. It is a natural mechanism that enables the power of the group to deal with icky situations.

It was already known that a high degree of social interaction before a stressful situation occurs aids in coping with stress, and now it seems that social interaction after being subjected to stress also helps an individual to deal with the situation. The aforementioned tend-and-befriend mechanism was already found in women, but men also appear to utilize this 'evolved' way of dealing with stress.

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