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Your Brain Is Nicer to Others When You're Under Less Stress

Stress forces our brains into self-preservation mode.

Key points

  • In stressful situations our brains focus more on self-preservation than societal benefit.
  • Calming and mindfulness practices can help our brains stay grounded in the present.
  • Less stress allows us to focus on behaviors that benefit others.

We all know that when we're overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious, we can often be snappy and less communicative with others. We're not very social with other people.

Stress compromises cognition and emotional regulation

Our thinking and emotions are affected by acute stress. This state affects our interactions with others, so-called "prosocial behaviors." Recent work by Paul Forbes and colleagues in Austria, Switzerland, and the UK delved into the brain regions that might be related to this phenomenon. These researchers note that prior work was restricted to mostly economic games and uncertain outcomes. They point out that a key part of prosocial behavior is the actual effort required. Forbes and friends decided to examine "how acute stress changes our willingness to exert effort that benefits others."

Stress leads to safety behaviors

The "more stressed participants showed increased activation to subjective value in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula when they could benefit from their exerted effort relative to when someone else could."

They show that when people are in stressed situations or are very anxious, regions of the brain that are related to executive control become down-regulated. This leads to more self-generated valuation and behavior and less desire or capacity to put in the effort needed to befit others.

Mindfulness is always in season

A reasonable explanation and application for this is that when you are not doing well, it's about self-preservation. Your nervous system is in a mode that's all about safety. The balance of your autonomic nervous system that's typically oscillating between your sympathetic, that old fight or flight, and parasympathetic branches—wine, dine, and recline is off.

This is important to recognize because it does give you something to work on. If you're trying to manage this. Any mindful practice that can help you back into a state of the present which is calming and involves focus, especially on your breathing, can help bring your brain to a less stressed and possibly more prosocial state.

This is especially important in times when things are generally quite stressful for everyone, like festive periods, and I'm looking right at you Christmas, when many of us have numerous social gatherings that require social interactions to succeed or, in many cases, endure.

A way to help with this is really to take a breath—especially through your nose—and to focus on mindful practices such as meditation, going for a soothing walk in the forest, maybe some martial arts, and so many other things that bring us back into the present moment and reset our brains. Something simple a person could do is take a walk before you go to the office party, family gathering, or any other group event as a way of paying it forward for your best behavior.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2023)


Forbes Paul A. G., Aydogan Gökhan, Braunstein Julia, Todorova Boryana, Wagner Isabella C., Lockwood Patricia L., Apps Matthew A. J., Ruff Christian C., Lamm Claus (2023) Acute stress reduces effortful prosocial behaviour eLife 12:RP87271

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