November 16, 2005

Reflecting on values may counter stress

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Simply thinking about something
personally meaningful can ease some of the physiological
effects of stress, a new study suggests.

In an experiment with college students asked to perform a
stressful task, researchers found that those who first
reflected on some important personal values -- whatever they
were -- showed lower levels of a stress-hormone while they were
under pressure.

The findings are the first to show that such
self-reflection can change the hormonal response to stress,
according to lead study author J. David Creswell of the
University of California Los Angeles.

"Reflecting on personal values, even something like your
abilities as a good father, can act as a buffer against
stress," Creswell said in an interview.

He and his colleagues report the results in the November
issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The study, according to Creswell, grew out of the body of
research on "self-affirmation," whereby people essentially
remind themselves that they are basically good and talented.
People who draw on this idea may, for example, be less likely
to blame themselves after something goes wrong.

For their experiment, Creswell and his colleagues had 80
college students go through the stressful task of explaining
why they were a good candidate for a university job to a pair
of stern interviewers.

Beforehand, about half of the students answered questions
that caused them to think about an area of life that they had
earlier identified as important to them -- such as religion,
social issues or politics. This was a "subtle" way to lead them
into reflecting on their personal values, Creswell noted.

The rest of the students answered questions on issues that
were not personally meaningful to them.

Before and after the stressful task, the researchers took
saliva samples from the students to measure levels of the
hormone cortisol, which tend to spike in response to stress.

Overall, the study found, students who'd reflected on their
personal values showed less of a cortisol response to the
stressful situation.

It's not clear what health benefits might be gained from
such a muted cortisol response. But studies have linked chronic
stress in general to a number of ill health effects, such as
high blood pressure and heart disease. There is also evidence
that emotional stress can precipitate a heart attack in people
with existing heart disease, perhaps partially via stress

Creswell and his colleagues are currently studying how
reflection on personal values affects people with chronic

Such self-reflection, Creswell noted, stands as a
potentially powerful stress buffer, since it's something people
can readily draw upon in their everyday lives.

SOURCE: Psychological Science, November 2005.