Science + Technology

Reflecting on Personal Values Offers Protection From Effects of Stress, UCLA Psychologists Report


Reflecting onmeaningful values provides biological and psychological protection from theadverse effects of stress, UCLA psychologists report in the November issue ofthe journal Psychological Science.

"Our study shows thatreflection on personal values can buffer people from the effects of stress, butthe implications are broader than that," said Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA distinguishedprofessor of psychology, and an expert in the field of stressand health. "Any positive self-affirmation can act as a buffer againststressful events; that can include values, personal relationships and qualitiesthat are a source of pride."

In the study, 80 UCLAundergraduates completed stressful tasks. They deliveredfive-minute speeches about their qualifications for an office job in front of "speechevaluators" trained to be non‑expressive, who wouldcoldly tell them during pauses, "You still have time remaining. Pleasecontinue." After a short break, they were instructed to subtract 13 from 2,083under harassing conditions. They were told to go faster and at each mistake,they were told, "That is incorrect. Please start over from 2,083."

Prior to these stresstests, one group of students (a randomly assigned "value affirmation" group)reflected on values they had identified in advance as especially meaningful tothem, answering 10 written questions. These could have been religious values,in which case they were asked a series of questions about their religion, theBible and God. In other cases, they reflected on meaningful secular values — such as theirpolitical beliefs or social values —answering questions about, for example, Abraham Lincoln or community servicework.

The other studentswere randomly assigned to a control group where they answered questions beforethe stress test about values they had identified as unimportant tothem.

Those who reflected onvalues they consider meaningful, regardless of what those values were, hadsignificantly lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormonereleased during stressful events; when stimulated excessively over time, cortisol can lead to cognitive impairments and increasedrisk for physical disease.

Eighty-two percent ofthe control subjects had an increase in cortisolafter the stress task, compared with only 51 percent of the value-affirmationparticipants, said David Creswell, an advanced UCLApsychology graduate student and the study's lead author.

"It's remarkable thatsuch a brief, subtle value affirmation has the ability to mute cortisolresponses and serve as a buffer against stress," Creswell said. "This is thefirst finding showing that reflecting on one's personal values reduces cortisol responses to stress. The implication is that valueaffirmation may make a stressful experience less so and, over time, this couldpotentially benefit one's cognitive functioning and physical health."

Forty-five minutesafter the stress test, the researchers still saw differences in cortisol levels between the two groups. The two groups hadthe same levels before the stress test.

The researchersmeasured the students' responses to stress, including cortisollevels, heart rate and blood pressure.

"This study providesevidence for a novel, but effective method to combat stress, showing thatthinking or potentially writing about important values can be stress-reducingand health‑enhancing," Creswell said.

"Stress-managementinterventions may benefit by incorporating value-affirming activities in thearsenal of weapons to combat stress, potentially in combination with othertechniques," he added.

Can affirming valuesalso help with chronic stress, such as that experienced by people coping with aserious illness, the death of a loved one or a difficult divorce?

Creswell's preliminaryanswer is that value-affirmation will produce beneficial health effects inthose cases, and he said that is an important question for future research.

"Self-affirmations canbe a very good stress-combater, especially under conditions of chronic stress,"Taylor said. "It's helpful to remind yourself you're a good person withtalents, and remind yourself what is important to you; that can be hard to dowhen you're going through something that's really awful."

The research team isconducting a follow-up study with people who have chronic illnesses, to assesshow reflecting on personal values affects health. Preliminary evidence suggeststhat these patients do benefit, Taylor said.

The research in PsychologicalScience was funded by the National Institute of MentalHealth and a Positive Psychology Microgrant. PsychologicalScience, published by the American Psychological Society,is one of the leading psychology journals in the United States.

Other members of theresearch team included William Welch, David Sherman (now at University ofCalifornia, Santa Barbara), Tara Gruenewald and TraciMann.



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