Monday, April 16, 2018

Not all stress is bad for your health.
Stressful situations you can actively cope with may not weaken your immune system.
Scientists have known for some time now that stress can be the cause of health problems because stress seems to depress the ability of a person’s immune system to combat illness.  However, we all face different types of stressful situations in our lives.  Sometimes we are faced with situations involving stress we can actively cope with by doing things that address the source of the stress.  For example, if a person is annoyed with a coworker’s behavior, she can actively cope with her stress by confronting the coworker and discussing the issue to sort things out.  Other times we are faced with situations involving stress we can only passively cope with by trying not to focus on the stress.  For example, if a loved one dies all you can do is try to deal with your negative feelings because you are powerless to change the person’s death (the source of the stress).  One question that scientists from the University of Amsterdam had was whether these two different types of stressful situations both negatively affect a person’s immune system.  To explore that question they conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
The experiment exposed 34 undergraduate students to three different types of conditions.  To simulate a stressful situation involving active coping, participants were given a time-paced memory test.  To simulate a stressful situation involving passive coping, participants watched a video showing various surgical operations.  There was also a control condition in which participants watched a boring documentary.  As a way to examine how the stressful situations influenced the participant’s immune system, the researchers took samples of saliva from the participant’s mouth before, during and after each stressful situation.  In the saliva, the researchers measured how much of secretory immunglobulin A (S-IgA) was present.  S-IgA is used by the body to protect against the invasion of microorganisms and toxins.  The less S-IgA present, the higher the risk of health problems such as upper respiratory infection.  To measure stress levels, participants completed a questionnaire after each saliva sample was collected.
Results showed there were no differences in how stressed participants felt during the memory test and while watching the surgery video.  Even though participants felt equally stressed in both conditions, their levels of S-IgA increased in the active stress condition (the memory test) but decreased in the passive stress condition (the surgery video).  This indicates that participants in the passive stress condition were less defended against microorganism and toxin invasions.  On the other hand, participants in the active stress condition were actually better defended than normal because their S-IgA levels had increased in response to the stressful situation.
Why should it matter to me?
Based on evidence from this experiment it seems all stressful situations are not created equal.  Passive stress situations seem to have a debilitating effect on at least one aspect of the body’s immune system functioning.  Active stress situations, however, seem to actually boost one of the body’s protective actions.  If this effect extends to other aspects of the body’s immune system, then people may want to be more careful what types of stressful situations they expose themselves to.  Also, when deciding how to cope with stress, people may want to try and choose more active-coping strategies.  By actively coping with your stress, instead of just passively trying to ignore it, you may better protect your health in the process.
Source: Bosch, J. A., Kelder, A., Veerman, E. C. I., Hoogstraten, J., Nieuw Amerongen, A. V., De Geus, E. J. C. (2001). Differential effects of active versus passive coping on secretory immunity. Psychophpysiology, 38, 836-846. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Popularity, Stress and your Health
Being popular may put you at greater risk of contracting an upper respiratory infection when you are under stress.
Typically people think being popular is a good thing.  This belief makes sense because popularity offers many benefits such as greater opportunities from having social contacts, a boost to self-esteem and respect from others.  Research has also shown that the diverse social networks popular people have may also help them cope with stress better than less popular people.  Popularity, however, may have a down side because popular people are exposed to a greater number of infectious agents when they interact with people in their diverse social networks.  If this is true, then are popular people more likely to get sick when their immune system is weakened by stressful life events?  To find out researchers from Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study.
What was the research about?
The experimenters recruited 114 college students for their study.  The study began with participants completing several questionnaires indicating any stressful life events they had experienced in the last 12 months (the measure of stress level) and how diverse their social network was (the measure of popularity).  After completing the initial questionnaires, all participants kept weekly diaries for the next 12 weeks.  In their weekly diary entries, participants indicated whether they had any symptoms normally associated with an upper respiratory infection such as nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, etc.  When any participants did report having these symptoms, they were immediately scheduled to visit the campus infirmary for a check-up to verify if they did actually have an upper respiratory infection.
The study results showed that less popular participants had an equal number of upper respiratory infections whether they were under stress or not.  The popular participants, however, had fewer infections when they were not stressed but more infections when they were under stress.  Therefore, the popular participants enjoyed better health as long as they were not under stress, but when under stress they actually got sick more often than the less popular participants did.
Why should it matter to me?
Although being popular can be nice, it may sometimes jeopardize your health by exposing you to more infectious agents.  When a person’s immune system is already weakened by stress they may be more likely to get sick as they socialize with all their friends.  Add to this the pressure some people feel to constantly socialize in an attempt to increase their popularity, and popularity becomes a real liability.  Perhaps it’s best, as with food and drink, to enjoy socialization in moderation, and even less so when under increased stress.
Source: Hamrick, Natalie, Sheldon, Cohen, & Rodriguez, Mario, S. (2002). Being popular can be healthy or unhealthy: Stress, social network diversity, and incidence of upper respiratory infection. Health Psychology, 21, 294-298. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Breast-feeding and Stress
Breast-feeding may reduce a woman’s stress level.
One of the many decisions facing new mothers today is whether they should breast-feed or bottle-feed their child.  One advantage of breast-feeding scientists only recently began investigating is a reduction in stress.  Researchers have found some evidence that a mother’s stress level is lowered as she breast-feeds her child.  The problem with this research, however, is that it has not controlled for other factors that may be responsible for the relationship between breast-feeding and stress reduction.  For example, perhaps women who choose to bottle-feed are also more prone to be anxious or stressed, which limits their production of breast milk and forces them to choose bottle-feeding.  In this case, how easily the woman becomes anxious, instead of the fact she doesn’t breast-feed, is what causes her more stress.  To help determine whether breast-feeding really does cause a reduction in stress, researchers from Columbia University and State University of New York at Stony Brook conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
The experiment involved 28 mothers who were both breast-feeding and bottle-feeding when they were recruited for the study.  The experiment consisted of 2 sessions that were scheduled one week apart.  The first session began with each mother completing a questionnaire that measured the positive and negative aspects of her current mood.  Afterwards she rested for 10 minutes and then either breast-fed or bottle-fed her child.  After feeding her child she rested for another 10 minutes and then completed the same questionnaire as before.  After 1 week each mother returned for the second experimental session.  The procedure for the second session was identical to the first session except this time each mother fed her child in the opposite way.  So if a mother breast-fed her child during the first session, she bottle-fed her child during the second session and vice-versa.  Conducting the experiment this way allowed the experimenters to control for the influence of other factors that may have affected the results.
The results indicated that when a mother breast-fed her child, the negative aspects of her mood decreased while the positive aspects remained the same.  Thus, breast-feeding reduced stress by reducing negative mood but did not actually increase positive mood.  Based on the way this experiment was conducted, the act of breast-feeding, rather than some other aspect, appears to be the cause of stress reduction in mothers who breast-feed.
Why should it matter to me?
If breast-feeding reduces stress, this is an important consideration when a woman is deciding whether or not to breast-feed her child.  Given that women are somewhat more vulnerable to psychological disorders immediately following childbirth (e.g., postpartum depression), the stress-reduction role of breast-feeding may help buffer this risk.  Even without considering psychological disorders, the time after childbirth is a time of great change and increased stress.  Mothers, especially first time mothers, can use breast-feeding as an opportunity to help reduce their stress.

Source: Mezzacappa, E. S., & Katkin, E. S. (2002). Breast-feeding is associated with reduced perceived stress and negative mood in mothers. Health Psychology, 21, 187-193. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Music and the Stress of Driving
Listening to your favorite music may reduce the stress of driving during rush hour.
For many people commuting to work in rush hour traffic is a major source of stress.  Although carpooling, mass transit and tele-working from home are possible solutions to the problem of commuting; these options are not always available to every person.  An alternative solution to the stress of commuting may be listening to your favorite music.  Music may help reduce the stress of commuting by distracting the driver’s attention from the heavy congestion, the primary source of stress, and relaxing the driver.  To test whether music does help reduce stress while driving, researchers from York University in Ontario Canada conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
The experiment involved a group of 40 students and business workers who all commuted alone, to school or their place of employment, using the same major highway.  Half of the participants were randomly assigned to choose their favorite tape or CD and listen to it during their commute.  The other half of the participants were not allowed to listen to any music or talk radio during their entire commute.  During their commute, the participants called the experimenter twice, using a cell phone, and verbally completed a questionnaire that measured their level of stress.  To make sure all participants reported their stress levels at the same point during their commute, the researchers designated two specific landmarks along the highway.  When the participants reached each of these two landmarks, they called the experimenter.  One of the landmarks was located along a typically low-congestion section of the highway and the other landmark was located along a typically high-congestion section of the highway.  This allowed the researchers to compare how stressed participants were when in high-congestion and low-congestion traffic during their commute.
Results showed that listening to music did reduce participant’s feelings of stress when they were in high-congestion traffic.  When participants were in low-congestion traffic, however, listening to music did not affect their stress levels.
Why should it matter to me?
            Commuting to work is a necessary evil for many Americans that can create a lot of stress before the actual work day even begins.  To help alleviate this stress commuters may want to try taking along a favorite CD or tape and listening to it during their commute.  This may help reduce stress by relaxing the person and giving them more of a sense of control during their commute.  Even if a person’s job itself is stressful, at least getting to that job doesn’t have to be.
Source: Wiesenthal, David, L., Hennessy, Dwight, A., and Totten, Brad. (2000). The influence of music on driver stress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 1709-1719

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pessimism and your health
Explaining bad events in a pessimistic way may jeopardize your health.
Everybody has something bad happen to them at some point.  People differ, however, in how they explain why the bad event happened.  Some people have a pessimistic style of explaining why bad things happen to them, whereas others have an optimistic style of explaining bad events.  Pessimists tend to explain bad events using internal (it's my fault), stable (it's going to last forever) and global (it's going to affect every aspect of my life) explanations.  Optimists, on the other hand, explain bad events using external (it's not my fault), unstable (it won't last long) and local (it's only this one thing) explanations.  For example, after failing a test a pessimist may think, "I failed the test because I'm stupid (internal cause).  I'm going to keep failing my upcoming tests in this class (stable).  My grades will go down, I'll never graduate, I'll never get a good job and all my friends will hate me (global)."  The optimist thinks, "I failed the test because the teacher's lectures were very confusing (external cause).  I'll do better on the next test (unstable).  After all it's just this one test, which is only 15% of my class grade, and I'm still doing well in my other classes (local)."  Research has shown that a pessimistic way of explaining bad events is linked to stress and depression.  Could a pessimistic outlook on life also make a person more susceptible to illness?  To answer that question researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Michigan conducted a study.
What was the research about?
The study followed 198 students over a 9-week time period.  During the first week all participants completed a questionnaire indicating how stressful they felt their life was at that time.  During the second week all participants completed a questionnaire that measured how they tended to explain hypothetical bad events.  The researchers used this questionnaire to classify participants as having either a pessimistic or optimistic way of explaining bad events.  During every week of the study participants also completed a questionnaire that measured how often they had felt ill, missed class because of illness and visited a doctor because of illness.  In addition participants reported how much they had been bothered by various health problems such as colds, headaches and extreme tiredness.
Results indicated that participants who had a pessimistic style of explaining bad events showed a positive relationship between their level of stress and how many illness symptoms they reported.  In other words, the more stress the pessimists were under, the more they experienced illness symptoms.  Participants with an optimistic style of explaining bad events, however, showed no relationship between stress and illness symptoms.  Therefore, an optimistic style of explaining bad events seems to help protect a person from getting ill while under increased stress.
Why should it matter to me?
Although people often can't completely prevent bad things from happening to them, they can control how they deal with those events.  Of course people should acknowledge their role in bad outcomes and learn from their mistakes, however, there is no need to beat oneself up over bad events.  Explaining events in a way that blows them out of proportion only enhances stress and may increase your odds of contracting an illness.  Instead try to realize the limits of a bad event and see the positive side of things.  Using this strategy will not only limit your stress, it may also help maintain your health.
Source: Jackson, Benita, Sellers, Robert, M., and Peterson, Christopher (2002). Pessimistic explanatory style moderates the effect of stress on physical illness. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 567-573.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Spirituality as a Coping Method
Feelings of spirituality may help you effectively cope with stress.
The sudden and terrible nature of last year's terrorist attack left many people searching for ways to explain the event and cope with it.  Some intuitively turn to their religion as a means of coping.  Researchers, however, have not consistently found religion to be an effective coping mechanism.  One reason may be that "religion" is a somewhat vague concept that researchers have a hard time measuring.  For instance, should people who believe in God but don't belong to any specific religious group be considered "religious"?  Instead of religion itself, perhaps some aspect of being religious would help people cope with their stress better.  To find out, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and University of Rochester Medical Center examined how people's specific feelings of spirituality affected their ability to cope with stress.
What was the research about?
One hundred and thirteen university students (73 men and 40 women) took part in the study.  The participants completed two sets of questionnaires over the course of the study.  The first set of questionnaires measured each participant's level of stress, feelings of spirituality, methods of coping with stress (other than spirituality), current positive and negative feelings, and any physical symptoms experienced during the past month.  One month later participants again indicated their level of stress, current positive and negative feelings and any physical symptoms experienced during the past month.
Study results indicated that participants with stronger feelings of spirituality experienced fewer negative feelings and fewer physical symptoms during times of high stress.  Thus, spirituality seems to have buffered or protected participants from stress-induced negative feelings and physical symptoms.  It is important to keep in mind these buffering effects of spirituality were found even after participants' other methods of coping were taken into account.  In other words, spirituality helped participants cope in addition to their other coping methods.
Why should it matter to me?
Based on this study, feelings of spirituality seem to help people cope by protecting them from negative feelings and physical symptoms associated with stress.  Therefore, when your life becomes stressful, you can have faith in using your faith to cope.
Source: Kim, Youngmee, & Seidlitz, Larry (2002). Spirituality moderates the effect of stress on emotional and physical adjustment. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 1377-1390.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Quitting Smoking and Stress

Quitting smoking may lower your feelings of stress.

Smoking is a serious health concern because it is the single largest cause of premature death and disability in the United States.  Despite the health risks associated with smoking, many people smoke as a way of coping with stress.  When these smokers attempt to quit, they often experience a short-term increase in their stress level and resume smoking.  On the one hand, this relationship between quitting and stress seems to suggest that people who successfully quit smoking will continue to experience higher levels of stress as time goes on.  On the other hand, successful quitters may actually lower their stress level because they no longer have the stigma associated with smoking or suffer stressful cravings between cigarettes.  To explore how quitting smoking affected a person's stress level, researchers from Arizona State University and Indiana University conducted a study.

What was the research about?

The study followed a group of 3,077 participants over a six-year time period between 1993 and 1999.  In 1993 and 1999 participants completed a series of questionnaires that measured the degree of stress they experienced in the past year, how positive and negative their mood had been in the past month, and their beliefs about how smoking affected their stress level and their health.

To analyze the results, the researchers first divided participants into four different groups: stable nonsmokers; participants who had never smoked or only tried smoking once or twice, successful quitters; participants who were regular cigarette smokers in 1993 but had quit by 1999, relapsers; participants who were ex-smokers in 1993 but had returned to regular cigarette smoking in 1999, and stable smokers; participants who smoked at least monthly in 1993 and 1999.

The results showed that successful quitters actually decreased their stress levels over time.  In fact, in 1999 the successful quitters' stress levels were identical to those of the stable nonsmokers.  Another important finding was that participants who tried to quit and failed (the relapsers) did not increase their stress levels over time, and had identical stress levels as stable smokers in 1999.  This is an important result because it shows that trying to quit and failing does not endanger a smoker by increasing his or her stress level.

Why should it matter to me?

Quitting smoking is a very difficult thing to do, so people need all the encouragement they can get.  In fact many people fail a number of times before they successfully quit smoking.  This study provides evidence, however, that repeatedly trying to quit is worth the effort because successful quitters lowered their stress levels.  Even more important is that those who failed to quit did not suffer from more stress, which provides encouragement to keep trying in the face of adversity.  Of course it is important to keep in mind that this study was correlational, meaning the researchers only found a relationship between how much people smoked and their stress.  Other factors besides smoking may also have affected the results; however, these results do provide some hope for those who continue to struggle with their habit.

Source: Chassin, Laurie, Presson, Clark C., Sherman, Steven J., & Kim, Kyung (2002). Long term psychological sequelae of smoking cessation and relapse. Health Psychology, 21, 438-443.