Neuroscience Says: Volunteering Can Decrease Negative Effects of Stress

BY Courtney Huckabay
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People tend to focus on themselves when stressed, but a recent study showed that helping others can significantly decrease the negative effect of stress on your body. Healthy behaviors clearly make sense from a rational standpoint, but they can be a drag — and difficult to maintain. Here are some strategies to help you develop and maintain healthy behaviors – using neuroscience.

Combat stress

"People tend to focus on themselves when stressed, but a recent study showed that helping others may significantly decrease the negative effect of stress on your body," Srini Pillaywrote in The Harvard Health Blog. "This may be due to the protective anti-​stress effects of the hormone oxytocin. Another study affirmed these findings by showing that helping others may help you live longer."

AudienceSCAN data says 16.7% of U.S. adults are "Cause/​Charity Volunteers." In your ads, you can stress strategies to reduce stress to this audience, simply by encouraging them to focus on the rewarding feelings they get from this activity.

"Also, people who find meaning in their adversity and focus on the benefits of their hard times deal much more effectively with stress. To that end, what could you learn from the stressors in your life now? How could they make things better? For example, people who lose a dear friend may learn to appreciate others more. Those who’ve had financial difficulties may learn to save more effectively. Looking for the silver lining in a cloud can be more than just a “fake” refocusing of your mind. If you do it authentically, it can reduce the negative impact of stress."

You could use Volunteers as "spokespeople" or case studies in stress reduction in your ads. Feature them talking about the rewards of volunteering and how they've used this strategy to manage stress elsewhere in their lives. Demonstrate that it's contagious, because AudienceSCAN research shows 50% of Volunteers set personal goals to become even MORE active helping others this year!

"In an ideal world, it would be great to be able to reflect on each choice prior to making it," Pillay said. "Yet, under stress, our brains tend to be reflexive rather than reflective. When we are reflexive, we tend to go back to old habits that are the established “default” pathways in our brains. For example, excessive sugar consumption is a risk factor for obesity, yet sugar also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which is why people may get hooked on it. In general, stress prompts habit behavior in humans, so dealing first and foremost with stress is probably advisable when you’re looking to make lasting changes. Luckily, your brain can change throughout life. This means that decreasing stress could ultimately help your brain become less vulnerable to habit."

Design intentions that your brain will respond to

"Your brain responds to two types of intentions — goal and implementation intentions. Goal intentions are broad and non-​specific. Implementation intentions are quite specific. Studies show that breaking all goal intentions into more specific intentions can go a long way. For instance, rather than just planning to work out, specify the time and place, or even the change you are seeking in pounds. When you spell things out for your brain, it can access that goal more readily than when you are vague and non-specific."

Speaking of goals, try emphasizing setting and reaching these types of goals in your ads: 38.5% of Volunteers want to be more spiritual; 32.8% want to be greener; 30.9% want to take up new hobbies; and 24.5% want to learn new career skills, according to AudienceSCAN. You can help your patients carry out these goals through neuroscience therapies!

"Habits are a powerful force that make change difficult. Yet, decreasing stress, attaching a priority tag to your goal, and being more specific will prepare your brain more adequately for the changes that will support your life," Pillay wrote.

AudienceSCAN data is available as part of a subscription to AdMall for Agencies, or with the SalesFuel API. Media companies can access AudienceSCAN data through the AudienceSCAN Reports in AdMall.