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Christy Matta, M.A.Christy Matta, M.A.
A Blog on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

How Giving to Others Can Improve Your Mood

Christy Matta, M.A. Updated: Mar 28th 2013

Pain and stress are part of life. We might want to avoid it, but like it or not we all must experience it.

globe with children and help wordingLoss, for example, is one of those life events that tends to precipitate feelings of crisis. If you've suffered the loss of someone important to you during your lifetime, then you know emotional turmoil you can experience in the midst of a crisis.

But life can cause emotional pain for many reasons, whether it's due to a death or whether its' been a loss of power and status, changes in your way of life, problems in a friendship, or loss of approval or respect.

Each of these experiences might trigger overwhelming emotions such as fear and dread, despair, depression, outrage or resentment. And in the midst of intense emotion, we can feel out-of-control and overwhelmed.

The good news is that although we can't avoid these life experiences or the painful feelings that come with them, we can learn to better cope.

What we do, in the midst of emotional turmoil has a huge impact on the intensity of our feelings and on how long we're in distress.

We can find ways to tolerate and survive our emotional pain-- a crucial step to getting through tough times without acting in ways that make it worse. When in pain, people often seek escape or solace in ways that create more problems for them. For example by drinking too much alcohol, over eating, restricting eating, gambling, lashing out at others and more.

So when you're overwhelmed or in emotional crisis, what should you do?

In the middle of a crisis is not the time to analyze an entire problem or your response. When you're in the middle of a crisis you need to act in ways that help you get through the problems of the day.

There are a number of strategies that can help, including finding ways to soothe and care for yourself and giving yourself short breaks from thinking about or dealing with your circumstances.

Another method involves thinking not about your own problems, but about the problems of others.

It may sound unhelpful or even depressing, when you're stressed and overwhelmed to focus on the problems other people face, but it can be worthwhile to compare yourself to people who are obviously worse off than you. Thinking about orphans in Africa, the struggles of those living in war zones or even a neighbor who is having difficulties at work can help put your own problems in perspective.

Not only that, if you go beyond simply thinking of others difficulties and move into action, providing help in some way, you can get additional emotional benefits. Giving and contributing to others in need can improve your own abiltity to manage crisis and feel better about your life. In a study on giving to benefit others, published online in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that "the psychological reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts."

In one study, University Students went to labs where they were given a small amount of money and told to buy a bag of treats for themselves or one for a child at a local hospital. Those who bought treats for others reported higher levels of well being, than those who bought for themselves.

Whether you're from Canada, South Africa or India, "the warm glow" of spending on someone else rather than on oneself may be a widespread component of human psychology, the authors reported.

Maybe we're hard-wired to benefit from generosity. Certainly our evolution has depended upon our ability to rely on one another. But, we don't need to know why giving improves our own mental well-being to give to others as one strategy to help us survive our own difficulties.

Christy Matta, M.A.

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress.” She is intensively trained in DBT and has designed and provided clinical supervision to treatment programs, including a winner of the American Psychiatric Association Gold Award. Matta has a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Boston College. For more on her consultation and trainings visit her web site www.dbtmind.com. For more tips and mindfulness tips and strategies visit her blog www.christymatta.wordpress.com.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Focusing on others - Barbara - Apr 1st 2013

    Years ago I was at the bottom of a deep pit and decided to make a list of all of my friends. I then went down the list each day when I felt depressed and needy, and called them..not asking for help, but asking how they were that day.  The first name was a lady with MS, in a wheelchiair, living in a nursing home, abandoned by family. As I went down the list, my mood improved. I did this for several months, and came out refocused on others, and healed in my spirit.  It truly works, even if the initial thought is "but I am too sad to do that."  Try it for a week and then decide how much you can help yourself by reaching out to others.

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