Transform Stress into Awe

Transform Stress into Awe


Perspective can change how you encounter an experience.

People often feel awe when encountering the majesty of the Grand Canyon, or a towering waterfall, or a storm that lights up the sky with electricity. They may also feel awe in spiritual settings, whether in personal contemplation or in a place of worship. But awe can be channeled as a coping strategy, according to new research from the University of Buffalo.

The study used cardiovascular measurements on 182 participants, measuring their responses to stress. They were exposed to an awe-inducing nature video, or a more neutral feeling documentary about sea creatures, and then asked to give a short speech on a setback they had experienced. People who had seen the awe-inspiring video expressed a more positive state when giving their speech, compared with the people who had watch the video on the sea life. The researchers called this a “challenge” state, where a stress is seen as manageable. The arteries are more dilated and the heart can pump blood easily around the body. In a threat response, on the other hand, a stress is seen as unmanageable and the body restricts arteries and blood flow.

Moreover, researchers “found that spontaneous self-distancing predicted whether awe benefited or had a negative effect on people,” wrote the study’s co-author, Mark Seery, an associate professor in the UB Department of Psychology. Self-distancing is when you are able to step back a bit, as if assessing from the perspective of a bystander, rather than being fully immersed.

“Creating that sense of ‘small self’ is to feel small relative to some awe-inspiring thing, whether it's the idea of a divinity or a natural landscape,” wrote Seery in the study. “I feel small, albeit connected to humanity.”

To turn to awe when facing a stressful life event, such as a big performance, Seery suggests, “we may need to take a step back from ourselves before we take it all in,” to reap the maximum benefits.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.