The Therapeutic Benefits of Helping Others
DIY Therapy Tools: Practical Stuff for People Who are Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
*Hint: the following tools only work if you USE them
I’ve long thought it to be true, and now I am grateful for the thorough, cutting edge research of Kelly McGonical and her Stanford colleagues: we are biologically designed to help each other.
It makes perfect sense, right? Our neurological and biological structures evolved for us to be most highly rewarded by taking care of one another because that was the best way to ensure our survival. It turns out, thankfully, the helping others doesn’t just meet our survival needs, it’s also the highway to thriving and feeling our best.
In her must read book, “The Upside of Stress”, McGonical reports: “In times of stress, both men and women have been shown to become more trusting, generous, and willing to risk their own well-being to protect others.” And for this willingness, we humans are highly rewarded. McGonical continues, “When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage. Helping others also protects against the harmful effects of even chronic or traumatic stress.”
In the face of stress we have a couple of different “tracks” our brain can take. The one that gets the most attention is fight-flight-freeze “stress” response that kicks into action when we are under threat, real or perceived. This system is imperative for our survival in immediate danger, but has an extremely high biological toll. Those who feed on fear warn us - somewhat correctly - that “stress” itself can literally kill us, let alone the threats its supposed to help us ward off.
But this oft told tale of woe overshadows the other track that we can go down when under stress. It’s what McGonical calls, “the tend and befriend response” and it is also governed by stress hormones. When we either spontaneously respond to stress in a “tend and befriend” manner, or we CHOOSE to respond as such despite our initial reactions to the contrary, we kick our “social caregiving system” into drive. Under the hood this means oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” revs up, our “reward system” releases dopamine, “increasing motivation while dampening fear” while also increasing “optimism.” And, serotonin wakes up our “attunement system”, “enhancing our perception, intuition and self control.”
When you are in the tend and befriend state, designed to have us protect our off-spring, challenge results in bravery “and - this is the most important part - anytime you choose to help others, you activate this state.”
So, this all sounds fine and dandy, but, you, might be thinking, “I’m too busy, tired, stressed, sick, and overwhelmed to be helping others. I’d love to, but really I can’t, and even thinking about it how I’m not ‘giving back’ makes me feel guilty.”
The best research in the business tells us that helping others, in even the smallest ways, may just benefit you most! According to McGonical’s research:
“Helping someone else decreased people’s feeling of time scarcity more than actually giving them extra time did. Those who helped someone else reported feeling more capable, competent, and useful than people who spent time on themselves… their newfound confidence changed how they perceived something as objective as time; after helping someone, time, as a resource, expanded.” The Wharton study concluded, “When individuals feel time constrained, they should become more generous with their time - despite the inclination to be less so.”
If you are not convinced, enjoy some more of what the best social, neurological and biological research in the field finds:
“The more time trauma survivors spent helping others, the happier they are the more meaning they have in their life.”
“Helping others can transform fear into bravery and powerlessness into optimism. When life is most stressful, this benefit of tending and befriending is even more crucial to our survival.”
“Helping others doesn’t just transform the psychological impact of suffering; it also helps protect against the harmful effects of severe life stress on physical health. In fact, helping others seems to eliminate the impact of traumatic events on health and longevity.”
“The act of helping others - whether through volunteering or simply connecting to your bigger- than-self goals - can unlock a biological potential for resilience.”
“The best way to help youth labeled “at-risk”, might just be to turn them into heroes, and to help them help others.”
“Helping the ‘at-risk’ help others can reduce the negative effects of poverty and chronic stress.”
“After 10 weeks teens who volunteered showed improvements in cardiovascular health, including lower cholesterol and reduced levels of two markers of inflammation, interlukin-6 and C-reactive protein.”
In a program where inmates volunteer to help perform hospice care for their peers, inmates report, “that caregiving allows them to express their true self...and that ‘I found something I thought I’d lost in myself. I’m not a throw away object. I got something to contribute.’”
Whew! Proof is in the pudding! For a long time I have been trying to explain to people that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act: helping others - even if (or perhaps especially when) we are sick, stressed, depressed, anxious, traumatized, etc - is proven to be the very best thing we can do for ourselves: body, mind and spirit. “People who want to feel more connected, supported and cared about often believe they need to wait for someone else to come and offer those things first. One of the most important helpful mindset shifts you can make is to view yourself as the source of whatever support you want to experience.”
Lending a hand, we get what we give.