Home All The Dance of Stress and Solace

Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.

Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.

At the Break of Dawn

At the Break of Dawn

Chronic stress has been linked to many health disorders, including depression, heart disease, cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease. Just reading the studies can increase anxiety – perhaps in life, all you really have to stress out about is stress itself.

It seems unfair that you could be trying to handle particularly stressful circumstances and then having to worry about external conditions taking root inside your body. But this is only part of the story. Your body is built for balance. The stress response engages a number of adaptive, complementary systems – including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems — fine-tuned to find a balance between stress and solace.

Respond! Regulate. Renew…
This dance for balance is called regulation. Faced with an actual or potential threat, your natural bodymind response is: Respond! Regulate. Renew…

Balancing act Acute or sustained stress can damage cells and tissues in the body and disrupt processes, including those of the cognitive, emotional, hormonal and immune systems. Without time to rest and recuperate, the body and mind can get fixed in a kind of (downward) stress spiral that is increasingly associated with many kinds of disease and dysfunction. Rest and renewal can undo those effects, and help bring one back in balance, the optimal state of flexibility and responsiveness.

Animal and human studies show that the body and brain can repair themselves after severe, damaging periods of stress. An un (or under) regulated response can be measured in different bodily systems, and even serious consequences can be reversed or reduced when balanced with solace

For instance, children exposed to severe deprivation, neglect or abuse develop hypocortisolism, one biomarker of severe stress imbalance. But support and sensitive care by foster caretakers normalizes their basal glococorticoid levels after ten weeks (Lupien, et al, 2009).

Pick Your Anodyne
What is solace and where do you find it? As a verb, solace is defined as: to cheer, soothe, delight, entertain, amuse. It is not a scientific term. But there are many paths and portals to solace.
Here are just a few ways to give or bring solace, empirically shown to have positive effects on physical and emotional regulation and well-being:

  • Get Sleep
    Sufficient sleep is required for restoration and repair; sleep loss is associated with impaired immune function, increased risk of disease, and cognitive and psychological impairment (Imari and Opp, 2009)
  • Massage Train

    Massage Train

  • Get a Massage
    Compassionate touch can trigger oxytocin release and improve well-being. Oxytocin is an endogenous opiate that has been shown to have “undoing” effects on physiological and psychological stress. Therapeutic massage has been shown to reduce pain, elevate mood, lower symptoms of distress and chronic pain, and improve sustained satisfaction with life. (RWJF, 2009).
  • Build Good Relationships
    In many studies, positive social relationships have been identified as beneficial for physical and mental health (Cohen, 2004). In their wonderful book A General Theory of Love (2000) Lewis and colleagues note, ” Our lovers, spouses, children, parents, and friends are our daily anodynes … potent magic indeed.” (p. 96).
  • Meditating Face

    Meditating Face

  • Meditate
    Mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to improve immune response, enhance stress regulation, lower anxiety, depression, symptoms of pain, and increase positive emotion, cognitive abilities, and integrated awareness. (Siegel, 2008)
  • Tulips


  • Increase Positive Emotions
    Vaillant (2008) notes that the effect of positive emotions on the autonomic nervous system is akin to the relaxation response in meditation. Sleep lowers basal metabolism by eight percent, whereas meditation states lower them by ten to seventeen percent and induces a deeply peaceful feeling (p. 5).
  • Nurture Vitality
    Emotional vitality, characterized by a sense of energy, positive well-being, and the ability to regulate emotions effectively, may protect against cardiovascular heart disease in men and women (Kubzansky and Thurston, 2007). The powers of protection are present even when depression and/or unhealthy behaviors are also present.

A different study comparing the impact of positive vs. negative affect on survival of patients concluded,

Dance of Solace

Dance of Solace

Our present results suggest that one single item on positive affect independently predicts 1-year survival in consecutively admitted medical inpatients. Interestingly, this item has a stronger association with survival status than the presence of depressed mood (Sherer and Lingan, 2009).

In other words, it seems that feeling ‘good’ may have a more potent power than the bad feelings of depression and life-threatening disease.

Take pleasure seriously, and sow it generously. Our capacities to cheer and be cheered, soothe and be soothed, delight and be delighted, help unlock the body’s powers of physical and emotional regulation, building long-term health.


Imeri, L., Opp, M. (2009). How and why the immune system makes us sleep. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Kubzansky, L.D., & Thurston, R.C. (2007). Emotional vitality and incident coronary heart disease: benefits of healthy psychological functioning. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(12), 1393-1401.

Lewis, T., Amini, Fari, & Lannon, Richard. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.

Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., and Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behavior and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Bulletin. (2009) Massage Therapy Versus Simple Touch to Improve Pain and Mood in Patients with Advanced Cancer.

Scherer and Hermmann-Lingan (2009) Single item on positive affect is associated with 1-year survival in consecutive medical inpatients. General Hospital Psychiatry, 31, 8 – 13.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

At the break of dawn courtesy of Haeroldus Laudeus
Balancing Act courtesy of Clairity
Massage Train courtesy of Erikogan
The Tulips courtesy elbphoto
Free face of a child with eyes closed meditation creative commons courtesy of Pink Sherbet Photography
once upon a past (woman with pensive smile) courtesy of The Alieness GiselaGiardino

Dancers drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.

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WJ 28 May 2009 - 7:34 pm


I suspect some of your tips are more important than others. As an example I’ve just cut coffee completely and the quality of my sleep has improved dramatically.

Interestingly I have found that my levels of parasympathetic activity (measured using sofware) have increased substantially since giving up coffee.

So I suspect sleep might be a foundation of solace (and perhaps happiness).

By the way all your tips increase parasympathetic activity. A number of researchers are speculating that parasympathetic activity might be a major pathway connecting mind with body.

Senia 29 May 2009 - 8:25 am

Denise, what a research-rich list of suggestions. That got me excited – how much research there is around topics like sleep and energy. Fabulous! Wayne’s idea is interesting too, and makes sense, about parasympathetic activities. I like the massage anodyne!

Denise 29 May 2009 - 8:48 am

Hi Wayne and Senia,

Thanks for commenting! It is exciting to see the research expanding on how we can build health resources and change habits that suppress our capacities.


Marie-Josee Salvas 29 May 2009 - 2:24 pm

Denise – as usual, I’m a big fan!

WJ – how interesting that cutting out coffee has increased your PNS activity! Really good to know about that connection, thanks you for sharing the info.

WJ, Senia – my next article will be on sleep versus well being and productivity. Stay tuned!


WJ 29 May 2009 - 4:46 pm


I forgot to stay that as the quality of my sleep improved, so did my general mood.

I suspect its harder to be happy, grateful, appreciative, content ………….. if you’re sleep deprived.

Susan J. Hwang 5 June 2009 - 9:32 am

Denise – great article! I especially liked the Sherer and Lingan research.

Denise 5 June 2009 - 3:30 pm

Susan, thank you! Yes, that is quite a finding in Sherer and Lingan .. and I’ve seen complementary research showing how important mood and expectation are to healing and longevity. Promising for future research….


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