How to reduce your cortisol levels and turn down the dial on stress

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According to a study, published in Journal of Women and Aging, communicating with female friends decreases stress hormone (cortisol) levels for women across the lifespan

How women can reduce their cortisol levels and turn down the dial on stress. Image courtesy: Unsplash/Elisa Ventur

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Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found that communicating with female friends decreases stress hormone levels for women across the lifespan.

The study, titled ‘What are friends for? The impact of friendship on communicative efficiency and cortisol response during collaborative problem solving among younger and older women’, was published in the Journal of Women and Aging.

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Led by former Beckman Institute postdoctoral researchers Michelle Rodrigues and Si On Yoon, an interdisciplinary team evaluated how interlocutors’ age and familiarity with one another impact a conversation, reviewing the interaction’s overall effectiveness and stress responses generated as a result, according to Science Daily.

The study highlighted the key differences in the ways different age groups communicate. Along with this, one conversational component emerged that stands the test of time — friendship, and more specifically, bonds between two individuals who identify as female.

Hypotheses:

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The tend-and-befriend hypothesis, which challenges the traditionally masculine “fight-or-flight” dichotomy was the first of the two hypotheses which formed the foundation of this female-focused study.

“Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress,” said Rodrigues, an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Women can befriend female peers to deal with stress, she said.

The other hypothesis tested was the socio-emotional selectivity hypothesis, which postulates a social “pruning” as humans advance in age and pursue a more intimate, higher-quality circle of friends.

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The interdisciplinary team looked into the query: across women’s lifespans, how are the tendencies to “tend and befriend” as well as socially select reflected in their communication?

The study:

The researchers tested a pool of 32 women: 16 “older adults” in the 62-79 age group, and 16 “younger adults” between the ages of 18-25. Each participant was either paired with a friend (a “familiar” conversation partner) or a stranger (“unfamiliar”).

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The partnerships underwent a series of conversational challenges, wherein the participant instructed her partner to arrange a set of tangrams in an order that only the former could see. The catch was that each shape was abstract, the appearance purposefully difficult to describe.

“You could look at one [tangram] and say, ‘This looks like a dog.’ Or, you could say, ‘This looks like a triangle, with a stop sign, and a bicycle wheel,'” Rodrigues said.

This exercise helped quantify each conversation’s efficiency: partners who achieved the desired tangram arrangement in fewer words were considered more efficient, and pairs who needed more words to complete the task were considered less efficient.

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The results:

The researchers found that while the younger adult pairs communicated more efficiently with familiar partners than their older counterparts, they communicated less efficiently with unfamiliar partners. The older adults demonstrated conversational dexterity, quickly describing the abstract tangrams to both friends and strangers.

“A referential communication task like this requires that you see where the other person is coming from. It seems like the younger adults are a little more hesitant in trying to do that, whereas the older adults have an easier time doing that with strangers,” Rodrigues said.

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“Even though older adults choose to spend more time with people who matter to them, it’s clear that they have the social skills to interact with unfamiliar people if and when they choose to,” Rodrigues said.

The researchers also observed that friendship has the same effect throughout the lifespan.

Rodrigues’ team measured salivary cortisol to quantify and compare participants’ stress levels throughout the testing process. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that tells our bodies to release glucose into the bloodstream.

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A rise in salivary cortisol from an individual’s baseline levels indicates that they are more stressed than they were at the time of the earlier measurements, explained Rodrigues.

Across both age groups, those working with familiar partners had consistently lower cortisol levels than those working with unfamiliar partners.

In conclusion, familiar partners and friendships buffer stress and this is preserved with age, Rodrigues said.

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With inputs from ANI

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