Monday, October 29, 2007

Major Stress in America: Studies Examine the Effects

Many people see stress as a natural part of life. However, extreme levels of it can prove to be quite dangerous. According to a survey recently released by the American Psychological Association (APA), one-third of Americans are living with extreme stress. The report published by the APA explains how the survey explored various issues, such as appropriate and excessive levels; circumstances, situations and life events that cause stress; activities, resources and behaviors people use to deal with it; and the personal costs of stress. This ongoing concern with stress and its physical symptoms has led many researchers to examine how mechanisms in the brain control the ability to adapt to it. It is important that researchers continue to study the effects of stress in order to develop new ways to promote resilience to psychological stress. This will prove beneficial to individuals whose stress contributes to the development of other mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

The APA report states that stress is taking its toll on people, contributing to health problems, poor relationships and lost productivity at work. The survey reports that half of Americans claim that they are more stressed than they were five years ago. In an APA press release, Russ Newman, APA executive director for professional practice, had this to say: “We know that stress is a fact of life and some stress can have a positive impact, however, the high stress levels that many Americans report experiencing can have long-term health consequences, ranging from fatigue to obesity and heart disease.” Even though 28% of Americans claimed to be managing their stress extremely well by engaging in activities such as exercising, praying, and listening to music, an even higher percentage reported experiencing the physical symptoms of stress (see image to the right). Surveys such as the one conducted by the APA are important in exploring what causes individuals the most stress. This survey found that the majority of American’s stress arose from work (74%) and money (73%). By knowing what aspects of life cause the most stress, specific programs can be designed to reduce stress in those target areas.

This great concern with the effects of stress has served to inspire many researchers to explore stress' underlying properties. For example, in a new study published online by Cell found that there is a distinct mechanism in the brains of mice that cause them to be resistant to stress. During stressful situations, vulnerable mice had excessive rates of impulse-firing by cells that make the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain. Adaptive mice on the other hand, maintained normal rates of firing due to a boost in activity of channels that allow the mineral potassium to flow into cells. The vulnerable mice were also found to have more activity of a protein called BDNF; resistant mice did not have this increase in BDNF. One of the authors of the study, Eric J. Nestler (pictured to the left, in the center with the other authors of the study) notes, “The fact that we could increase these animals’ ability to adapt to stress by blocking BDNF and its signals means that it may be possible to develop compounds that improve resilience.” He goes on to say that this is a great opportunity to explore potential ways of increasing stress-resistance in people faced with situations that might otherwise result in other disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Continuing research on stress is essential in developing new and effective methods of regulating stress. One study that came out in the October issue of General Psychiatry, examined how behavioral intervention helps boost the stress regulating hormone, cortisol, in children who were at high-risk for developing antisocial behavior. The behavioral intervention proved to be successful in teaching these high-risk children the appropriate social skills needed to adapt to stressful situations. Interventions such as this one are important because they lessen the stress people would otherwise be left to face. Another study even examined the way video games can be a success in combating the stress by training people to change their perceptions of social threats and boost their self-confidence.

Collectively, all these studies done on stress work to explain how the dynamic interaction between the environment and the brain determine how one adapts to stress in life. More research will eventually lead to new medicine and treatments that will promote resilience to psychological stress. As new methods for controlling stress surface, they will undoubtedly help individuals deal with the pressures they face in life, from the post-traumatic stress of war to the stress induced by paying mortgage bills.

1 comment:

LG said...

Dear IC- This is a very interesting and informative post. Being a college student, there is a lot that I personally can relate to about stress. The psychological factors that weigh-in to stress is a very important and relevant issue for Americans. The facts and figures on your post are wonderful and add a lot of credibility to the blog. I thought this fact was especially interesting, “According to the survey half of Americans claim that they are more stressed than they were five years ago.” I wonder what the key factors are that have resulted in Americans being more stressed? It would be interesting to see if economic or world situations (ex: Iraq War) have played a role in our increasing stress levels. Your pictures are well placed and make a great impact on your blog, especially the chart showing the physical symptoms of stress. I was somewhat surprised that heart related disease was not mentioned in the chart. Usually I associate extreme levels of stress with a higher chance of having a heart attack or heart related problems. Is this still true? Another trend that I have been reading about, and you briefly mentioned in your blog, was the rise in children being stressed. So I like that you referenced in your blog a way the medical community is trying to fix the stressed and antisocial behavior of some younger children, “…behavioral intervention help boost the stress regulating hormone, cortisol, in children who were at high-risk for developing antisocial behavior.”

This is a great and informative blog, the only recommendation is having links to the pictures, I would have liked to see where the charts for stress related symptoms came from so I could have done some research on my own. I also think an expansion on the child related stress would be interesting- but that is for personal interest. Thanks for another wonderfully written and researched blog. -LG

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