How Friends Alter Your Perception of Stress

People stress less when with friends.

Posted Sep 07, 2019

Life is full of stress. Bills, health issues, work, forgetting to get the wifi password from the coffee shop and realizing it was on the receipt but you’ve already thrown it out. It’s all just too much sometimes.

Stress doesn’t only produce physical discomfort; it also ages our bodies and shortens our lifespan. A review of research on the effects of stress finds that it spikes our blood pressure, fries our immune system, unsettles our sleep, and makes us more susceptible to both physical and mental health issues. Remember when you were a kid and you were afraid of monsters harming you? Then you got a little older and you realized monsters weren’t real. Then you got a little older and realized those monsters were actually a metaphor for stress, a far more daunting beast who lives everywhere instead of just under your bed.

Researchers have been proposing new solutions to reduce the abysmal impact of stress. Some of these methods have focused on diminishing the effects of stress via reappraisal: seeing stress as a “challenge” or “extra energy” in your body that you can use to achieve your goals.

But what if instead of reducing the impact of stress, there was a solution that altered our perception of it, so that things that were perceived as stressful are perceived as less so? In contrast to reappraisal, this sort of intervention would involve upending stress by its roots, rather than weed whacking it after its already sprouted in our bodies. Friendship is just that solution.

The presence of friends makes us view stress through rose colored glasses. For example, a highly publicized study involved asking people who were either alone or with a friend to estimate the steepness of a hill in front of them. Those who were alone viewed the hill as steeper than those who were with a friend.

Another study involved researchers approaching men walking around a college campus either alone or with their friends. The male participant in the group was escorted away from his companions to take part in the study. Each man was shown a picture of an alleged terrorist and was asked to estimate the terrorist’s size, height, and muscularity. The scores were integrated to create a composite “physical formidability” score. Men who were alone estimated that the terrorist depicted in the image was more physically formidable than men who were with friends. Threats are less threatening when we are with friends. 

So what does this mean for those of us who are stewing in stress and looking for relief? Importantly, each of these studies found that our perception of stress is more optimistic when we are in the presence of friends. This brings me to one of the secrets of friendship—reaching out. It’s not enough to just have friends; we need to place ourselves in their company, especially during times of stress.

The “strong friend” who is tight-lipped and reclusive when facing stress won’t achieve the same stress-busting benefits from friendship as friends who are willing to make themselves vulnerable and engage with their friends during hard times. When you’re about to undergo potentially stressful events—enlisting in a triathlon, waiting on medical results, undergoing your annual evaluation at work—that’s your cue to reach out to friends and reap the stress softening rewards.  

References

Fessler, D. M. T., & Holbrook, C. (2013). Friends shrink foes: The presence of comrades decreases the envisioned physical formidability of an opponent. Psychological Science, 24, 797-802.

Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). Review article: The impact of stress on body function: A review. Excli Journal, 16, 1057-1072.

Schnall, S., Harber, K. D., Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1246-1255. 

Jamieson, J. P., Crum, A. J., Goyer, J. P., Marotta, M. E., & Akinola, M. (2018). Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: An integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31, 245-261.