Reflecting on meaningful values provides
biological and psychological protection from the adverse effects of
stress, as reported by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
psychologists in the November issue of the journal "Psychological
" Our study shows that reflection on personal values can
buffer people from the effects of stress, but the implications are
that," said Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA distinguished professor
of psychology, and an expert in the field of stress and health.
positive self-affirmation can act as a buffer against stressful events;
that can include values,
personal relationships and qualities that are a source of pride."
In the study, 80 UCLA undergraduates completed stressful tasks. They
delivered five-minute speeches about their qualifications for an office
job in front of "speech evaluators" trained to be non-expressive,
who would coldly tell them during pauses, "You still have time remaining.
Please continue." After a short break, they were instructed to subtract
13 from 2,083 under 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 stress tests, one group of students (a randomly assigned "value
affirmation" group) reflected on values they had identified in advance
as especially meaningful to them, answering 10 written questions. These
could have been religious values, in which case they were asked a series
of questions about their religion, the Bible and God. In other cases,
they reflected on meaningful secular values — such as their political
beliefs or social values — answering questions about, for example,
Abraham Lincoln or community service work.
The other students were randomly assigned to a control group where they
answered questions before the stress test about values they had identified
as unimportant to them.
Those who reflected on values they consider meaningful, regardless of
what those values were, had significantly lower cortisol levels. Cortisol
is a hormone released during stressful events; when stimulated excessively
over time, cortisol can lead to cognitive impairments and increased risk
for physical disease.
82% of the control subjects had an increase in cortisol
after the stress task, compared with only 51% of the value-affirmation
participants, said David Creswell, an advanced UCLA psychology graduate
student and the study's lead author.
"It's remarkable that such a brief, subtle value affirmation
has the ability to mute cortisol responses and serve as a buffer against
stress," Creswell said.
" This is the first finding
showing that reflecting on one's personal values reduces cortisol responses
stress. The implication is that value affirmation may make a stressful
experience less so and, over time, this could potentially benefit one's
cognitive functioning and physical health."
Forty-five minutes after the stress test, the researchers still saw
differences in cortisol levels between the two groups. The two groups
had the same levels before the stress test.
The researchers measured the students' responses to stress, including
cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.
" This study provides evidence for a novel, but effective method
to combat stress, showing that thinking or potentially writing about
important values can be stress-reducing and health-enhancing," Creswell
" Stress-management interventions may benefit by incorporating
value-affirming activities in the arsenal of weapons to combat stress,
combination with other techniques," he added.
Can affirming values also help with chronic stress, such as that experienced
by people coping with a serious illness, the death of a loved one or
a difficult divorce?
Creswell's preliminary answer is that value-affirmation will produce
beneficial health effects in those cases, and he said that is an important
question for future research.
" Self-affirmations can be a very good stress-combater, especially
under conditions of chronic stress," Taylor said.
helpful to remind yourself you're a good person with talents, and remind
what is important to you; that can be hard to do when you're going through
something that's really awful."
The research team is conducting a follow-up study with people who have
chronic illnesses, to assess how reflecting on personal values affects
health. Preliminary evidence suggests that these patients do benefit,