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There could be an upside to those worries.

Brain imaging research suggests that being under stress may make you more compassionate to others who are struggling or in pain. That’s because stress may activate a part of the brain associated with empathy. 

How the study worked

An international team of researchers measured the brain activity of 80 male participants, some of whom were given a stress test while others acted as a control group with no intervention.

The stress test sounds hellish: Participants were instructed to solve difficult tasks under a deadline, all while receiving negative feedback on their performance. Researchers measured the participants’ anxiety during this exercise by measuring their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Once sufficiently stressed, the study subjects looked at photos of strangers who were undergoing a painful medical procedure and were asked to imagine how the patient in each photograph felt. For some of the images, researchers told the participants that the patient in the photo had received anesthesia, indicating that the person didn’t feel pain during the procedure. Researchers did this so they could determine whether the study participants’ reactions were to the image of the procedure or were based in an understanding of the patient’s experience.

The control group also looked at the photos.

The study found that stressed participants displayed more empathy toward the photographed patients. Even when the individuals were informed that the patients weren’t in pain, they still had an empathetic reaction, according to scans done of the “empathy” neural center in the brain. 

Stress compels people to help others

The study also aimed to measure if stress not only helped people empathize with others who were struggling, but if it compelled them to act on that empathy.

After the participants were purposefully stressed out and looked at images of people in pain, researchers then had volunteers play a game designed to measure whether or not these emotions would make them more altruistic. The exercise, a behavioral economics game called “the dictator game,” required individuals to divide a sum of money between themselves and strangers in whatever ratio they chose to use.

The results showed the amount of neural activity a person had in the empathy network of the brain also correlated with how much money the participants gave away in the dictator game. The more empathetic a person was in the first test, the more money that person shared with others in this test.

What this all means

The results of the study indicate that people may have stronger emotional reactions when they’re under stress and may be more likely to behave altruistically. 

But this reaction may not always be beneficial: The researchers were surprised to find that the study participants felt pain on behalf of patients they were told were under anesthesia as well as those they were told were in pain. 

This suggests empathetic reactions under stress may “result in aid that is uncalled for or inappropriate,” study researcher Claus Lamm of the University of Vienna, said in a statement. For example, a stressed person may react with alarm when someone is crying out of joy. 

“[D]epending on the context and situation, stress can be either beneficial or detrimental in social situations,” Lamm added.

There are also some other caveats. The study sample was small, for one, and it was also only conducted on men. It’s difficult to say if these results can apply to the whole population.

That being said, as Science of Us pointed out last year, there’s a whole body of research that supports the notion that the jitters can help people succeed under pressure. A 2013 study found that reframing performance-related anxiety in the mind as excitement can help people do better in the task. Other research found that students who were told their anxiety over a test would help them get better scores actually ended up with better results on the exam than those who weren’t told their stress would help.

In other words, while stress might be uncomfortable, there are times where it can be a force for good. At least something positive can come from it, right?

The Wall

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