Finding Meaning Can Protect Against Stress

There’s plenty not to like about stress. The worrying. The tension. The not being able to relax and enjoy yourself.

But one of the worst parts of stress might be the sheer pointlessness of it. Stress can attack your basic sense of meaning in life.

The other side of this, though, is that having meaning in your life to keep you centered can make you more resilient in the face of stress and protect against some of stress’s most harmful effects.

Take a recent study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Researchers followed 1,871 adults over the course of a year, examining the relationship between stress, meaning in life and health.

They found that some of stress’s harmful effects on physical health and on immune system functioning have to do with lack of meaning rather than stress per se. That is, stress erodes people’s sense of meaning, which in turn has harmful physical effects. However, if you’re stressed out but with more meaning in your life, your health will fare better on average than if you’re stressed out but with less meaning.

Reinforcing your sense of meaning and purpose can counteract some of stress’s harmful psychological effects too. One study found that having a strong sense of meaning makes people less likely to develop depression in response to traumatic life events. Another found that people who give meaning to their most traumatic life events by creating narratives are less likely to develop PTSD.

Meaning could also explain some of why religion and spirituality can help people cope with stress. A 2015 study of late adolescents showed religion and spirituality tended to help people find more meaning in life, which in turn influenced how people handled stress.

Of course, spirituality is far from the only source of meaning in life. The research suggests that any source of meaning can potentially protect against stress. And where we find meaning in life is unique from person to person – that’s part of what makes it meaningful!

Image: Flickr/Dan McCullough