Monday, May 21, 2018

When helping people cope with their stress, don’t be too obvious about it.
When a person we care about is trying to cope with a stressful event in their life, we obviously want to help them cope as much as possible.  Unfortunately our attempts to help may actually be no help at all.  Researchers have found that people, who report receiving help coping with a stressful event, only cope as well or even worse than people who don’t report receiving any help.  This may happen because receiving help draws our attention to our problem, is a blow to our self-esteem or the “help” is just not that good and makes the problem worse.  Researchers have also found, however, that people who just believe they have access to social support if they should need it, cope better than those who don’t think they have sources of social support.  In other words, in times of stress, if we think we have sources of social support we cope well.  Yet if we actually receive help from those sources of social support we don’t cope as well.  These two findings seem contradictory, so a group of researchers from New York University and Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment to try and reconcile these inconsistent findings.
What was the research about?
The researchers recruited 68 couples in which one person was preparing to take the New York State Bar Examination.  The Bar Examination is a 2-day test that all aspiring lawyers must pass before they can practice law and is generally a very stressful event.  For each of the 32 days leading up to the Bar Exam, both members of each couple individually completed a short diary form.  In the diary form, the person about to take the Bar Exam (the examinee) indicated their feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as whether they had received social support from their partner that day.  The partner indicated whether he or she had given the examinee social support that day.
Results showed that during the time of highest stress (the week before the exam), feelings of anxiety and depression actually increased on days when the examinee reported receiving social support from their partner.  This was true whether or not the partner had actually provided any social support that day.  On the other hand, anxiety and depression decreased on days when the partner provided social support but the examinee did not report receiving social support.  In other words, on days when the person under stress was given social support but just didn’t realize it, they felt better.  How could a person receive support and not realize it?  One example is when your partner does a household chore without even telling you.  The stress associated with the chore is gone but you don’t even realize your partner helped you out.  These results show that receiving social support does help people cope with stress, but only when their attention is not drawn to the fact they are getting help from another person.
Why should it matter to me?
It’s very common for people to want to help others cope with a stressful event.  If we aren’t careful how we approach helping the other person, however, we may just cause them more stress.  If we help them in a very obvious way this may just make the person feel worse by highlighting their vulnerability to stress.  Instead, we should try to help them in ways that don’t draw their attention to their stress.  Realizing how to best help a person cope is also important in times when we end up causing them more stress.  By understanding which type of help is actually beneficial, we can avoid becoming confused or angry if a person reacts negatively to receiving our “help”.
Source: Bolger, Niall; Zuckerman, Adam & Kessler, Ronald C. (2000). Invisible Support and Adjustment to Stress. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 79, 953-961. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Workaholics and their well-being
As long as you enjoy your work, being a workaholic may not be bad for your emotional and physical health.
Do you know someone who works every chance they get, feels driven to keep working hard after others have stopped and even misses their work when on vacation?  These are the characteristics of a “workaholic”.  There are a wide variety of opinions about workaholism.  Some people view workaholics positively because they believe workaholism leads to increased productivity.  Others, however, view workaholics negatively because they believe workaholism leads to unhappiness, health problems and stress for co-workers.  Which view is more accurate?  To help answer that question a researcher from the school of business at York University conducted a questionnaire study.
What was the research about?
A total of 530 MBA graduates, who had all graduated some time prior to 1996, completed a mailed questionnaire.  The questionnaire asked respondents to report how involved with work they were, how driven they felt to work hard, how much they enjoyed work, their psychological well-being, any psychosomatic symptoms experienced in the past year (e.g., headaches), their lifestyle behaviors (e.g., how often they exercised) and emotional well-being.
Respondents who reported being highly involved with their work and very driven to work hard were classified as workaholics.  Results showed that only workaholics who didn’t enjoy their work reported poorer psychological well-being, more psychosomatic symptoms, less healthy lifestyle behaviors and poorer emotional well-being than non-workaholics.  Workaholics who did enjoy their work were just as psychologically and emotionally well as the non-workaholics.  Therefore, how much a person enjoys their work, instead of how hard they work, seems to be the best predictor of their psychological and emotional well-being.
Why should it matter to me?
When we think someone is a workaholic we may get a negative impression of that person because we think they are a slave to their job and suffer the consequences.  This impression may be completely inaccurate.  Some workaholics may work so much just because they enjoy their job a lot, and this doesn’t appear to be such a bad thing, at least as far as their psychological and emotional health is concerned.
One important point to keep in mind, however, is the results of this study are only correlational and don’t necessarily mean that enjoying work causes that person to experience better psychological and emotional well-being.  An alternative conclusion could be the reverse; that having better psychological and emotional well-being causes the person to enjoy their work more.  More research needs to be done before these two explanations are sorted out, but this study does show there is an important relationship between work enjoyment and a person’s well-being.
Source: Burke, Ronald J. (2000). Workaholism in Organizations: Psychological and Physical Well-Being Consequences. Stress Medicine. 16, 11-16.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Stress and Smoking
Reducing feelings of stress may be a reason teenagers smoke.
People commonly report they smoke because it reduces their feelings of stress, and research shows that smokers tend to report higher levels of overall stress in their lives than non-smokers do.  People who stop smoking also experience increased feelings of stress, and this stress makes quitting for good less likely.  All of this research relating smoking to stress, however, has only examined adult smokers.  Therefore, a pair of researchers from Australia decided to study the relationship between stress and smoking in teenagers.
What was the research about?
A sample of 2625 adolescents, obtained from various Australian high schools, was given questionnaires to complete.   The questionnaires measured how much stress the respondent experienced from a variety of sources, such as attending school, family conflict and parental control, as well as how much the respondent smoked.
Results showed that adolescents who smoked regularly reported higher levels of overall stress compared to non-smokers.  Interestingly, girls reported experiencing greater levels of stress associated with most of the sources than boys did.  Stress associated with attending school, family conflict and parental control was most related to smoking for girls.  These sources of stress distinguished well between girls who smoked and didn’t smoke.  Stress associated with attending school was most likely to distinguish between boys who smoked and didn’t smoke.  Thus stress from school, family and parental control may be what leads a teenager to smoke.  These results are correlational, however, so it’s not clear whether these sources of stress actually cause a teenager to smoke or not.
Why should it matter to me?
Clearly stress is an important factor in teen smoking.  Whether or not stress causes a teen to smoke is not certain; however, teens that begin to smoke may be more likely to continue because smoking does seem to help alleviate stress.   Smoking may also help teens to better fit in with other peers.  Adolescence is a time when identity is very important; therefore socially smoking may be a way for teens to help establish their peer group.  By realizing that teen smoking is at least associated with stress, parents can take steps to help their kids avoid smoking.  A good start is to be aware of the stress your child experiences and help him or her cope with that stress.  Of course parents must be careful when doing this because their efforts to help may be interpreted by the child as an attempt to control their behavior.
Source: Byrne, D. G. & Mazanov, J. (1999). Sources of Adolescent Stress, Smoking, and the Use of Other Drugs. Stress Medicine, 15, 215-227.