One of the reasons Lindy and I try to “read emotions” – in other words, understand what people are thinking and feeling – through the use of psychophysiological measures is because negative (and sometimes positive) emotions can negatively affect our health. We all have lay theories about what is good and bad for our health (e.g., it’s probably not great if your boss screams at you everyday), but Lindy and I use physiological measurements to gain stronger evidence about how certain situations influence health and disease. Below, I’ll tell you about one study within the field of social psychology that did just that.
We all know that it’s important to try to stay away from long-term, chronic stressors. Long-term stressors – like the chronic illness of a loved one, an emotionally abusive relationship, or an overly-taxing job – all tend to erode the body’s systems over time, making us less able to fight off disease and infection. But in addition to chronic stressors, we also experience more acute stressors: having a job interview, going on a first date, or performing in front of a large crowd. When we are acutely stressed, it’s adaptive for the body to work hard to deal with the stressor, so getting stressed, in and of itself, is not the problem. However, if our body’s physiological response to acute stressors does not quickly dissipate, acute stressors can lead to the same negative health effects as more chronic stressors.
So, what are some things that might make you stressed in the short term? And what is it about some people that allows their bodies to recover from stress more quickly than others?
Inter-racial interactions and speeches can both elicit a lot of stress. To study stress and stress recovery, researchers asked White and Black participants to give a speech in front of White or Black evaluators. During the speech and immediately after the speech, the experimenters measured how forcefully participants’ hearts were contracting, how much of a stress hormone called cortisol they were releasing, and how quickly their hearts returned to a resting state.
Results showed that participants were stressed and engaged during the speech: their hearts contracted more forcefully, and they released a stress hormone called cortisol. When participants were evaluated by an outgroup member (a member of another race), the amount of contact the participant had with members of the other race across a number of situations influenced how quickly they recovered from the stress of the task. Their stress hormone levels and their hearts returned to rest more quickly than those who had less previous experience with members of the other race.
What does this mean in the long run for our health? In a diverse world where we interact with members of other races and groups frequently, these results suggest that the stress sometimes associated with those interactions can be mitigated by past experience. Having experience interacting with members of other groups in different contexts may be one way to reduce the maladaptive effects that stress or anxiety can have on you. Over time, this could be beneficial for the functioning of your immune and cardiovascular systems.
Page-Gould, E., Mendes, W. B., & Major, B. (2010). Intergroup contact facilitates physiological recovery following stressful intergroup interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46,854-858.