If you get scared when you go skydiving, perhaps a good way to cope is to team up with someone who feels the same. A new study suggests sharing your feelings of stress with someone having a similar emotional reaction to the same situation reduces levels of stress more than sharing them with someone who is not.
Study leader Sarah Townsend, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, says their findings could be helpful for people experiencing stress at work:
"For instance, when you're putting together an important presentation or working on a high-stakes project, these are situations that can be threatening and you may experience heightened stress. But talking with a colleague who shares your emotional state can help decrease this stress."
She and her colleagues invited 52 female undergraduates to take part in a study on public speaking where they had to prepare and give a speech that would be recorded on video.
Before giving their speeches, the participants were placed in pairs and encouraged to discuss with each other how they felt about the situation.
The researchers measured the participants' emotional states, and how threatening they perceived giving a speech to be. They also took measures of the stress hormone cortisol, before, during and after the speeches.
Emotional similarity buffers stress
The results, write the authors, "show that sharing a threatening situation with a person who is in a similar emotional state, in terms of her overall emotional profile, buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that typically accompany threat."
"Confirming our hypotheses, greater initial dyadic emotional similarity was associated with a reduced cortisol response and lower reported stress among participants who feared public speaking."
In other words, says Prof. Townsend, imagine you are facing a stressful situation at work, perhaps an important project with a lot riding on it, then interacting with a co-worker with "a similar emotional profile can help reduce your experience of stress."
Prof. Townsend now wants to extend the scope of the research to look at how developing emotional similarity might help people from different cultural backgrounds who have to work together, for example as employees or students.
She also urges professionals to think about the importance of emotional similarity and consider questions like: "How do we get people to be more similar? What can you do to generate this emotional similarity with a co-worker? Or, as a manager, how can you encourage emotional similarity among your team?"
Researchers who spoke recently at a conference of the British Psychological Society urged employers to take note of the importance of emotion at work. They said employers who offer schemes that support workers' well-being outside the workplace may reap benefits during working hours.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD