Recent years have seen an alarming rise in anxiety disorders, which now affect nearly 20 percent of the population—over 40 million people. One in five Americans also suffers from extreme stress, which can lead to panic attacks, anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart attack, chronic fatigue, dementia, and a long list of addictive behaviors (American Institute of Stress; Anxiety Disorders Association of America; National Institute of Mental Health; Twenge, 2000). As millions suffer from debilitating fear and anxiety, our bodies churn out adrenaline and cortisol, shutting down our immune systems and undermining our health.

With physical danger, the stress reaction helps us survive. Our ancestors fled when a prey animal was stalking them. But we cannot run from most modern stressors: relationship conflicts, pressure at work, deadlines, traffic, and the daily assault of violent news. It all adds up to what Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky calls “sustained psychological stress,” posing a clear and present danger to our health (2004, p. 5).

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

What can we do about it? Years ago, pioneering stress researcher Hans Selye found that responding to beauty in nature or art helps us overcome chronic stress, returning our bodies to balance or “homeostasis” (1956). Research has now revealed why. Chronic stress, fear, and shame produce elevated levels of inflammation, or proinflammatory cytokines, which have been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression. UC Berkeley researchers have found that responding to beauty with a sense of awe significantly lowers these levels (Stellar, John-Henderson, Anderson, Gordon, McNeil, & Keltner, 2015), improving our physical health.

Focusing on beauty not only helps us feel better, it actually helps us deal with stressful problems. Research has shown that shifting our attention to beauty is much more effective than constant worry. While filling our minds with rumination only increases stress, undermining our health and our ability to think clearly, focusing on beauty produces positive emotions that restore our peace of mind and build our capacity for resilience (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). Finally, research has shown that turning our attention to something beautiful can increase our hope, making us more resourceful, more able to deal with life’s challenges (Diessner, Rust, Solom, Frost, & Parsons, 2006; Diessner, Solom, Frost, & Parsons, 2008).  

So the next time you feel overwhelmed by the stress in your life, try giving yourself a break: take a moment to focus on something beautiful.

References

American Institute of Stress: http://www.stress.org/stress-is-killing-you/

Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA): http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety,

Diessner, T., Rust, T., Solom, R. C., Frost, N., & Parsons, L. (2006). Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 301-317.

Diessner, R., Solom, R. C., Frost, N. K., & Parsons, L. (2008). Engagement with beauty: Appreciating natural, artistic, and moral beauty. Journal of Psychology, 142, 303-329.

Fredrickson, B. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175. 

National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015).Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129-133.

Twenge, J. M. (2000). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007-1021.

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