Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Stress and the Common Cold
People who face chronic stress may be more likely to catch a cold.
Although research has clearly shown that higher levels of stress are associated with increased susceptibility to illness, exactly what type of stress is responsible for this link is not known.  For instance, acute stressful events only occur once or only have a short-term effect on the individual, such as when a person has a fight with his or her friend.  Chronic stressful events, however, can occur repeatedly or can affect the individual over a long period of time, such as when a person is unemployed for months.  To find out how these two different types of stressful events affect a person's susceptibility to illness, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine conducted a study. 
What was the research about?
Two hundred seventy six paid volunteers (125 men and 151 women) took part in the study.  The participants first completed a series of questionnaires that assessed their social networks, exercise routine, smoking level, age, education, race, gender, weight and height.  All of these variables were measured at the beginning so that the experimenters could statistically account for and control any influence these variables might have on the results of the experiment.  One month later the participants underwent an extensive interview to assess how many acute and/or chronic stressful events they were experiencing.  Afterwards the participants were all quarantined for 24 hours and then given nasal drops that contained a cold virus.  After being exposed to the cold virus the participants were quarantined for another 5 days.  During these 5 days the experimenters repeatedly tested the participant's blood and mucus to determine which participants developed a cold.
The results showed that participants experiencing chronic stressful events were more likely to develop a cold than those who were not experiencing any chronic stressful events.  Participants who had experienced acute stressful events, however, were not more likely to develop a cold.  The researchers also analyzed which specific types of chronic stressful events were associated with developing a cold.  They found that participants who were experiencing interpersonal stressors (e.g., ongoing problems with spouse) or stressors at work (e.g., underemployment or unemployment) were more likely to develop a cold; however, participants experiencing other types of chronic stressors were not more likely to develop a cold.
Why should it matter to me?
Although a chronic stressful event may not always seem to be as bad as an acute stressor, chronic stress appears to compromise a person's ability to resist illness.  If you are currently facing chronic stress this study demonstrates another reason it is important for you to try and deal with your stressor rather than simply putting up with it or avoiding it.

Source: Cohen, Sheldon, Frank, Ellen, Doyle, William J., Skoner, David P., Rabin, Bruce S., & Gwaltney, Jack M. Jr. (1998). Types of stressors that increase susceptibility to the common cold in healthy adults. Health Psychology, 17, 214-223. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Coping with Loss
When coping with the loss of a loved one, finding meaning in the event and seeing the positive side of things really helps.
When someone we love dies it can be very difficult to cope.  Psychologists who study coping with loss have found that people who develop an understanding of the event and its implications seem to cope most effectively.  Unfortunately, psychologists are not clear exactly what about understanding an event and its implications helps a person cope.  One possibility is that a person reduces their distress by making sense of the event or explaining why the event occurred   For example, a person may come to believe that a loved one's death was simply meant to be because it was part of God's plan.  Another possibility is that people find something positive in the event (the "silver lining") that lets them take some comfort in the loved one's death.  For example, a person may gain a new perspective on his or her life, or the death may have brought the person's family closer together.  To try and sort out how each of these processes affect coping with loss, and what factors influence these two processes, researchers from the University of Michigan and Stanford University conducted a study.
What was the research about?
The researchers first recruited 455 participants who had a terminally ill loved one in hospice care.  Each of these participants was interviewed prior to the death of their loved one, as well as 6, 13, and 18 months after the death of their loved one.  During the first interview the researchers measured psychological distress, how religious the participant was, and how optimistic/pessimistic the participant was.  During each interview after the loved one had died, the researchers measured psychological distress, optimism/pessimism, and whether the participant had been able to make sense of the loved one's death and/or find some positive aspect in the experience.
The results showed that participants were more likely to make sense of their loved one's death if the person had died at an older age and the participant was more religious.  Interestingly, the only factor related to whether participants were able to find some positive aspect in the experience was how optimistic they were.  Participants were more likely to find the "silver lining" the more optimistic they were.  The results also showed that finding a positive aspect in the experience helped participants cope better with their loved one's death than making sense of the event did.  Therefore, it seems that seeing the sliver lining helps more than just making sense of why the person died.
Why should it matter to me?
Losing a loved one is a truly terrible experience to go through.  Although you may be overwhelmed with grief, trying to see the positive aspects of your experience can help you cope.  Perhaps the person was suffering and their death brought them relief, or perhaps you realized just how much your family and relatives cared for your well being as they gave you social support.  Regardless of what benefits you draw from a loved one's death, seeing those benefits can help their death enrich, rather than diminish, your life.

Source: Davis, Christopher G., Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, & Larson, Judith (1998). Making sense of loss and benefiting from the experience: Two construals of meaning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 561-574. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

The stress of commuting to work
Adopting a flextime commuting program may help reduce employees' stress.

Commuting to work is an unavoidable part of many people's job.  Unfortunately, an employee's daily commute to work can be a source of significant stress.  This stress can in turn cause real problems with employee attitude, absenteeism and health.  To help combat these problems, some businesses have adopted a flextime program.  Flextime is a program that allows for flexible starting and quitting times.  Thus employees on a flextime program avoid rush hour traffic by coming to work earlier (or later) and leaving earlier than (or later than) the normal quitting time.  Although this program would seem to help alleviate commuting stress for employees, no research has actually tested the program's effectiveness.  Therefore, two researchers designed a study to test whether flextime is effective at reducing employees' commuting stress.

What was the research about?
The study involved 123 full-time employed commuters from Atlanta, Georgia.  The researchers chose Atlanta residents because Atlanta has the longest average commute (34.7 miles) of any city in the world; making it a very stressful city to commute in.  All of the participants completed an online survey that measured how much stress they felt during their commute, how much time urgency they felt during their commute, and how satisfied they were with their commute.  The researchers then compared responses between participants who were taking part in a flextime program and those who were not.  The results showed that participants taking part in a flextime program reported feeling less stress and less time urgency during their commute.  There was no difference, however, in how much satisfaction both groups felt with their commute.

Why should it matter to me?
If commuting to work is a source of significant stress, then you may want to look into trying a flextime program.  Although this program means adjusting your work schedule, the reduction in stress may be worth it.  Alternatively, if you are a manager who is worried about employee stress due to commuting, a flextime program may be worth considering.
Source: Lucas, Jennifer, & Heady, Ronald B. (2002). Flextime commuters and their driver stress, feelings of time urgency, and commute satisfaction. Journal of Business  and Psychology, 16, 565-571.