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Stressed out? Try thinking of something you value

By Monte Morin

6:17 PM EDT, May 3, 2013

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Feeling so stressed you can't concentrate? Try stepping back a moment and thinking about what's important to you.

That's the conclusion of a study published recently in the journal PLOS One that examined the beneficial qualities of self-affirmation in times of heart-pounding stress.

Mind you, this isn't the Stuart Smalley "doggone it, people like me!" style of self-affirmation, but it's easily practiced in everyday life, says lead author J. David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them," Creswell said in a press statement. "It's an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high-pressure performance situation."

High levels of stress have been shown to impair problem-solving ability and creativity. According to Creswell and colleagues, however, a growing body of research suggests that self-affirming exercises can buffer that stress.

In an experiment involving 80 undergraduate students, authors asked participants to rate the importance of 11 values -- things like family, business, politics, humor and music -- and then had the students complete a series of tests in which they were  pressured for answers. ("I need you to try harder," was one of the phrases experimenters used to ratchet up the stress level.)

Before they were tested, though, the students were split into two groups -- a control group and an affirmation group. The affirmation group was asked to rate the list of values and then write an essay about why their top-rated value was so important to them, and the control group was asked to write an essay about one of their least-rated values and why it might be important to other people.

After completing that exercise, participants were shown three words on a computer screen and asked to supply a fourth word that was related. For example, some study participants were shown the words, "flake, mobile and cone." Those students who answered "snow" were correct. Experimenters also monitored the test subjects' heart rate and blood pressure to confirm whether they were in a high- or low-stress state.

When study authors tabulated the test scores, they found that self-affirming test participants scored 40% higher than the control, or non-self-affirming, group. However, when both groups were tested in a low-stress environment, their test scores were very similar.

"Our present study suggests that a brief self-affirmation activity is sufficient to buffer the negative effects of chronic stress on task performance and can improve the ability to problem-solve in a flexible manner during high-stress periods," authors wrote.

The authors noted, however, that the study had its limitations. Chief among them was the possibility that the self-affirming activity was only effective in the unique test-setting that experimenters created.

"It will be important for future studies to consider the mechanisms linking self-affirmation with improved problem-solving," authors wrote.

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