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Transform Stress into Awe

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Lower Antelope Canyon

Bill_Vorasate/Thinkstock

Perspective can change how you encounter an experience.

People often feel awe when encountering the majesty of the Grand Canyon, or a towering waterfall, or a storm that lights up the sky with electricity. They may also feel awe in spiritual settings, whether in personal contemplation or in a place of worship. But awe can be channeled as a coping strategy, according to new research from the University of Buffalo.  

The study used cardiovascular measurements on 182 participants, measuring their responses to stress. They were exposed to an awe-inducing nature video, or a more neutral feeling documentary about sea creatures, and then asked to give a short speech on a setback they had experienced. People who had seen the awe-inspiring video expressed a more positive state when giving their speech, compared with the people who had watch the video on the sea life. The researchers called this a “challenge” state, where a stress is seen as manageable. The arteries are more dilated and the heart can pump blood easily around the body. In a threat response, on the other hand, a stress is seen as unmanageable and the body restricts arteries and blood flow.

Moreover, researchers “found that spontaneous self-distancing predicted whether awe benefited or had a negative effect on people,” wrote the study’s co-author, Mark Seery, an associate professor in the UB Department of Psychology. Self-distancing is when you are able to step back a bit, as if assessing from the perspective of a bystander, rather than being fully immersed.

“Creating that sense of ‘small self’ is to feel small relative to some awe-inspiring thing, whether it's the idea of a divinity or a natural landscape,” wrote Seery in the study. “I feel small, albeit connected to humanity.”

To turn to awe when facing a stressful life event, such as a big performance, Seery suggests, “we may need to take a step back from ourselves before we take it all in,” to reap the maximum benefits.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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