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.