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How Helping Others Improves Mental Health

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If nothing else, humans are empathetic animals.

helping hands

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Watching the footage of the tragedies in Haiti or of those unemployed and struggling families in recession-torn America can bring great feelings of sadness, even when the suffering is thousands of miles away. The good news is that when those feelings turn into action -- altruism -- one can have long-term improvements in mental health.

One study of churchgoers shows that people who offer love, caring, and support to others have better mental health than those who only receive help. This study, out of the University of Massachusetts, found that the very act of giving to others gets people outside of themselves and reduces their own anxiety and depression. In the study, 2,000 people answered questionnaires that asked about the kind, quality, and amount of loving care that people extended to others. In a second survey, the same group were then given a test that looked at their mental health in general. The findings showed that receiving help wasn't as powerful a mood lifter as giving help -- and that physical health was not affected.

I have one personal example of how caring about another can reduce anxiety. Last year I was giving blood at UCLA's emergency trauma center. I had never donated blood before and had tremendous anxiety about it. Thankfully, an empathetic nurse gave me unusual attention. But receiving her gift of care didn't help me as much as something else that happened during the procedure. I noticed a young woman nearly fainting as she stood near us, and as I quickly directed the nurse to leave me and attend to her, I felt my own anxiety disappearing. My entire attention was focused on the girl (who vomited in a trash can before she lay down), and while I barked directions (I'm like that) and inquired about her well-being, I totally forgot that my own body was pumping out a pint of red stuff. It was amazing how caring took me outside of my own experience.

The study also showed that age and prayer affects one's ability to help: Church leaders, older individuals, women, and those who took satisfaction from prayer were more likely to be altruistic helpers than receivers of help. Yes, the old adage is true. Giving is better than receiving. So, this is the week to help a neighbor, donate to causes for Haiti's recovery, or simply visit an elderly person.

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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
Ten Tees January 9, 2011, 2:34 PM

Great article. Enjoyable to read. I have a small opinion to submit about funny shirts.

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