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Showing that you’re stressed may make others like you more, psychologists say

If your job is making you stressed, speaking up about it may be a good idea.

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  • Psychologists looked at the signs of stress and how these behaviours are perceived by others. 
  • People who showed higher levels of stress were deemed to be more likable by peers, the study found.
  • Being more open could give the impression you’re more cooperative, the researchers suggest. 

Who doesn’t want to be more likable? Popular people tend to be more trusted and have more friends.

In a workplace context that could mean better relationships with colleagues, and help you climb the corporate ladder. 

There are ways to boost your potential popularity, but being open about the fact you’re stressed is one you may not have thought of.

It’s well known that when we’re stressed we tend to do things like bite our fingernails or touch our faces.

As part of research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, psychologists from Nottingham Trent and Portsmouth universities sought to investigate how these behaviours are perceived by others, and more importantly how they react.  

For the study 31 participants were given a short time to prepare for a three-minute presentation and mock interview. They were then asked to complete a difficult math test. Their reactions were filmed throughout. 

The researchers asked them to complete a questionnaire and collected samples of saliva to monitor their levels of cortisol — the chemical our bodies produce in response to stress. Unsurprisingly, some of the participants became stressed as a result. 

For the second part of the study, a separate group of 133 participants were shown a random sample of the recordings and were asked to rate how stressed they perceived the original volunteers to be based on their behavior. 

They were also asked to rate on a scale of one to 100 how much they liked the people shown in the first study. 

The researchers found that people who reported feeling more stressed were generally perceived to be more stressed by their peers. Interestingly, those who displayed higher levels of stress, or were perceived to be doing so at least, were generally deemed to be more likable by those involved. 

The researchers are not clear why that may be. One evolutionary hypothesis they discuss is that when people are seemingly open about a “weakness”, it could be perceived that they’re more prepared to be cooperative. 

Whatever the underlying reasons, the study suggests there’s a potential advantage to revealing when you’re stressed. 

“We expect people to take advantage of weakness but showing your vulnerable side encourages support and social bonding,” Jamie Whitehouse, research fellow at Nottingham Trent University’s department of psychology, wrote in a summary of the findings for The Conversation. 

Stress can have some wider benefits

It’s not the first study to suggest that there can be some wider benefits to stress. 

Studies have found that an optimal level of stress can be a motivator at work, pushing people to perform in their role.

Others suggest that by reframing the “fight or flight” response triggered by stressful situations as excitement rather than negativity can help a person overcome challenging situations. 

Of course that doesn’t mean we should broadly accept stress, nor encourage it as a means of making ourselves more likeable. When stress is chronic, it can lead to burnout and have negative mental and physical consequences. 

The clear message from the study is that if a job interview, presentation, workload or just day-to-day life is making you stressed, speak up about it.

As Whitehouse writes: “Communicating honestly and naturally through your behavior may in fact leave a positive impression on others.”

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