Socialization and Altruistic Acts as Stress Relief

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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As we’ve discussed in our social support article, humans are inherently social beings. Socialization, or enjoying other people's company and maintaining a sense of connectedness to others, is an important component of stress relief.


Joining a club or group, chatting online, calling a friend on the phone, or hanging out with family are all examples of socialization. These activities decrease loneliness while promoting feelings of safety, security, belonging, and enjoyment.

What Is Stress & How Does It Affect Us?

Stress is a natural reaction that occurs when your body and mind respond to challenges, changes, or pressures in your life. It is characterized by mental tension or worry. Everyone experiences stress at one point or another, but how you deal with it can greatly affect your mental health and well-being.[1]

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Acute stress triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, preparing the body to respond to the perceived threat. This can lead to immediate effects on well-being, including increased heart rate, heightened alertness, and mobilization of energy resources.[2]

What Are the Best Stress Relief Techniques?

Some immediate stress-relief strategies include:[3]

  • Positive social interaction 
  • Noting what you see, feel, smell, hear, or taste
  • Vocal toning, which involves sitting up straight and making “mmm” sounds 
  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Taking a break from your smartphone or laptop
  • Walking
  • Taking a bath
  • Squeezing a stress ball
  • Meditating
  • Sipping green tea
  • Laughing

Understanding Stress and Its Triggers

While everyone is different, there are some common triggers for stress that many people experience, including:[4],[5],[6],[7]

  • Major life changes, such as moving or divorce
  • Relationship problems, such as breakups, conflicts, or strained friendships
  • Financial issues, such as job loss or managing budget constraints
  • Work-related pressure, such as handling workload or meeting deadlines
  • Medical problems, such as chronic illness and surgeries
  • Ambiguity about the future or career
  • Parenting stressors like childcare and household duties
  • Busy schedules and the grind of daily life

The physiological response to stress involves the activation of the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, leading to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While some stress can be beneficial, prolonged exposure to these hormones can have detrimental effects on your health. Chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, impaired immune functioning, and high blood pressure.[2]

What Is Socialization?

Social support affects our balance of hormones. Adequate amounts of social support are associated with increases in levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which functions to decrease anxiety levels and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming down responses. Oxytocin also stimulates our desire to seek out social contact and increases our sense of attachment to people who are important to us. Stressed people who have adequate levels of social support receive an oxytocin boost, which helps them feel less anxious, more confident in their ability to cope, and more drawn to other people (thus perpetuating the positive cycle of social support).

Socialization also directly impacts our stress levels in multiple ways. First, socialization increases a hormone that decreases anxiety levels and makes us feel more confident in our ability to cope with stressors. In addition, spending time with others directs our energy outward (rather than inward). If you are focused on reaching out to other people, you are temporarily distracted from your own circumstances, pain, or stress levels. People who reach out to others can rely on those individuals for help and emotional assistance in the future. 

Next, people who are socially connected feel wanted, included, and cared for. These individuals can talk through problems and share feelings with others (which can decrease stress feelings). Time spent socializing can strengthen your sense that life has meaning and purpose and increase your mood—all factors that can help protect you against the negative effects of stress.

Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says, "Different people need different levels of socialization to help manage stress, but all people need people on some level for overall mental wellness. Where an extrovert gets energy from spending time with other people, an introvert is drained by social interaction and often needs breaks from being around people. This does not mean that introverts don't need social interaction but that they draw energy from time away from people after spending time being social; their energy comes from reflecting on and processing those social interactions."

Strategies to Increase Socialization 

Here are some strategies that you can use to increase socialization:

  • Initiate interactions with friends and family. Call them, invite them over, have a party, exercise together, or eat at a restaurant.
  • Introduce yourself to neighbors and other people you come into contact with frequently.
  • Join groups or take classes that interest you (religious groups, civic groups, service groups, hobby groups, exercise groups, etc.).

Keep in mind that quality, rather than quantity, counts when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  Forming and maintaining quality relationships can take a little work. Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says, "It's also important to establish boundaries within your personal relationships to keep them healthy. The ability to say 'no' to social interactions you aren't comfortable with and balancing social obligations with independent self-care is imperative for socialization to serve as a stress relief. Like anything, too much of a good thing can also become a stressor." 

Surrounding yourself with a large number of people that you don't know very well is less effective than having two or three close confidants when it comes to successfully reducing stress. In light of this idea, once you have established relationships, it is important to devote some time to cultivating them. Reciprocity (give and take) is essential to maintaining healthy relationships. You need to strike a balance between listening and being listened to, supporting another while being supported, and so on.

Finally, assertiveness skills (such as saying "no" to friends and family when it is appropriate; see our discussion of assertiveness and interpersonal skills in a later section) are also important to ensure that socialization is a stress-reducing, rather than a stress-inducing, experience. If other people start to make unreasonable demands upon your time, resources, and energy, these relationships can start to become yet another stressor rather than a way to decrease negative stress levels.

Altruism and Volunteer Work as Stress Relievers

Engaging in altruistic activities can have positive effects on well-being. Some examples include:

  • Volunteering with nonprofits or local charities
  • Doing small, random acts of kindness
  • Donating to charity or nonprofit organizations
  • Mentoring or tutoring younger people
  • Participating in community service activities and initiatives
  • Supporting loved ones

These activities benefit others and contribute to a sense of purpose, connection, and fulfillment.

However, while helping others can be rewarding, it’s important to check in with yourself and your stress levels. Without boundaries, altruistic activities can quickly become stressful as opposed to beneficial. Make sure you establish boundaries, practice self-care, and recognize when you need to prioritize your needs so that helping others can be sustainable and effective.

What Is Altruism?

Being altruistic means helping others or doing good deeds without focusing on recognition or reward for yourself. Even though the point of altruism is focusing on others, this type of behavior can go a long way toward reducing stress. The act of giving can activate neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain and nervous system) associated with positive feelings, decreasing anxiety and worry and making people feel stronger and more energetic. Suffering from anxiety? Identify your anxiety symptoms with our free online anxiety test.

In addition, altruism decreases stress by virtue of the outward focus (much like socialization). Focusing on and helping others in need (especially those who are less fortunate than you) can provide you with a sense of perspective on how fortunate you are. You can spend more time being thankful for the things you have (e.g., good health, adequate food, money, safe place to sleep, etc.) and less time pining for things that you feel you lack (e.g., expensive TV, large home, fancy car, etc.). Helping others with their problems can also help you gain a more positive perspective on the things in life that are truly causing you stress.

Altruistic individuals have better life adjustment overall and tend to see life as more meaningful. In addition, altruism is associated with better marital relationships, a decreased sense of hopelessness, less depression, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem. Altruism also tends to neutralize negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular function.

If you choose to incorporate altruistic acts into your stress management plan, it's important to select activities that fit with your personality, financial situation, and time budget. Otherwise, these generous acts may start to take on the tone of stressful obligations and start to increase, rather than decrease, your perceived stress levels. Some valuable ways to help others include:

  • Donating money or time to your favorite charity
  • Taking a meal (or a gift card for a meal) to a family with a new baby or someone who is ill
  • Extending the time on someone's parking meter
  • Paying a toll
  • Offering to babysit for a new mother or father
  • Providing respite to a caregiver who needs a short break to recharge

Anyone who has taken on too much and/or struggles with boundaries and social commitments can see a therapist or mental health professional to work on boundaries to identify a healthier balance. 

Breathing Exercises for Rapid Stress Reduction

Deep breathing techniques can promote relaxation and reduce stress. Here are detailed instructions for two common deep breathing exercises.[8]

Abdominal breathing:

  • Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand. Ensure your chest remains relatively still.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth or nose, contracting your abdominal muscles.
  • Repeat this process, focusing on the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath. Aim for 5-10 minutes.

Relaxing breathing:

  • Sit or lie down comfortably, keeping your back straight.
  • Close your eyes and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  • Exhale completely and audibly through your mouth for a count of 8.
  • This completes one breath cycle. Repeat for four cycles initially, gradually increasing as you become more comfortable.

Practice these deep breathing techniques regularly to enhance their effectiveness in managing stress and promoting a sense of calm.

Research shows that controlled breathing can calm the nervous system by activating the parasympathetic response, reducing stress, and promoting relaxation. [9]

Additional Resources

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