- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Thoughts about God, deep personal convictions and social values — it does a body good. Literally.

“Reflecting on meaningful values provides biological and psychological protection from the adverse effects of stress,” states a report released yesterday by psychologists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Our study shows that reflection on personal values can buffer people from the effects of stress,” said Shelley E. Taylor, a psychology professor who led the research, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The study found that even brief introspection actually reduces the levels of cortisol — a hormone released during stressful events — in the blood.

“This is the first finding showing that reflecting on one’s personal values reduces cortisol responses to stress,” said David Creswell, one of the article’s authors.

The study required 80 UCLA undergraduates to experience some uncomfortable moments. Half of the group was asked to think about topics of particular meaning to them, such as “their religion, the Bible and God,” or personal political or social beliefs. The rest of the group got no such prompts.

The students were then asked to deliver speeches about themselves before an audience, only to be continually interrupted by onlookers who reminded them that their time was running short. The frazzled orators were told to complete complex mathematical problems aloud under “harassing conditions” and forced to repeat the problems if they made errors.

In the aftermath, “those who reflected on values they consider meaningful, regardless of what those values were, had significantly lower cortisol levels,” the report stated.

Among those students who went into the study without mulling over values, 82 percent had an increase in cortisol. Only half of the “value-affirmation participants” had raised levels. The researchers also noted difference in the students’ heart rates and blood pressure.

“It’s remarkable that such a brief, subtle value-affirmation has the ability to mute cortisol responses and serve as a buffer against stress,” Mr. Creswell noted. “The implication is that value-affirmation may make a stressful experience less so. Over time, this could potentially benefit one’s cognitive functioning and physical health.”

Even 45 minutes after the stressful encounters, the researchers still saw physical differences between the two groups.

“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,” Mr. Creswell said.

The researchers plan to test the method among those coping with serious illness, divorce or loss of a loved one. But it’s no easy task.

“To remind yourself what is important to you, that can be hard to do when you’re going through something that’s really awful,” researcher Mrs. Taylor noted.

The report was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

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