I’m a grown-up. I have adult commitments and responsibilities, and my sources of stress mirror those of my fellow grown-ups. But somehow, whenever I reach my breaking point, my childhood instinct of talking through it with my mom kicks in and I find myself dialing her number. Turns out, my behavior is rooted in biology: Research says calling mom really is the ultimate stress reliever.
According to a recent report in Wired magazine, researchers have found that girls who talk to their mothers – either on the phone or face-to-face – experience a drop in the stress hormone cortisol and an uptick in oxytocin, hormonal changes that indicate reduced stress.
The researchers, whose study has been published in the January issue of Evolution and Human Behavior, recruited 64 girls between the ages of 7 and 12, pre-screened to remove anyone with poor relationships with their mothers or extreme family difficulties.
The study asked the girls to undergo a stressful test in a lab: solving difficult math problems in front of an audience of three unknown adults. The subjects were then assigned to one of four groups: one didn’t talk to their mothers at all, another talked by phone, the third had face-to-face conversations and the final group communicated via instant message with their mothers.
After connecting (or not) with their mothers, researchers measured the girls’ cortisol and oxytocin levels, comparing them to pre-test measurements. Those who heard their mothers’ voices, either in person or on the phone, showed the drop in cortisol and the spike in oxytocin.
The results of the study left one of its researchers, Leslie Seltzer, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, wondering about the origins of a mother’s soothing power. She stated her research question in Wired: “Would this still work if we took out the tone, if we took out the verbal cues, and all we had left over was the content of the message?”
In fact, the girls that received only content – via instant messages from their mothers – saw almost no hormonal changes. Seltzer concluded that it’s a mother’s voice – her tones and intonations and vocal rhythms, known formally as prosidics – that specifically trigger the soothing effects. In addition, it’s likely that instant messaging alters conversational dynamics. As the Wired article suggested, “Maybe moms who heard their daughters’ voices were better able to detect stress and respond to it. On a screen, ‘I’m fine’ is a fairly one-dimensional statement. Heard aloud, it can convey something very different.” Seltzer explicates, “It doesn’t matter how many smiley faces you put in your IM. It’s not going to have the same effect as talking in person.”
Katy Waldman of Slate agrees with Seltzer. She writes, “As a nominal ‘adult’ who has sought maternal word balm in the past, I’m not surprised to hear that daughters might be uniquely susceptible to their parents’ tones of comfort (or, for that matter, anger or pride or frustration).”
Jezebel takes the research conclusions a step further and suggests readers take this as a hint that calling mom – not texting, instant messaging or emailing her – still makes the difference, even in our digital age. The blog site posted, “This sounds like a pretty good reason to call your mom regularly — and yes, actually call her.”
Are you dialing your mother as you read this? Do you find that kids and teens in your life find stress relief in conversations with their moms? Or are their other, less maternal paths to reducing stress that you find more helpful?