What’s on your mind: The psychological dimensions of stress
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Discovery Vitality

What’s on your mind: The psychological dimensions of stress

You've surely heard – or perhaps even used – the expression: “This stress is going to take years off my life!” Latest research suggests that this statement is more than a metaphor: it reflects genuine biological reality.

Scientists at the University of California in San Francisco have found that women with high levels of perceived psychological stress had more advanced signs of biological aging – by at least ten years – compared with women with low levels of stress. The scientists discovered that DNA structures called telomeres, which are found at the ends of chromosomes and are believed to determine longevity, were considerably shorter in the highly stressed women.

These findings show how psychosocial stress may, at the cellular level, predispose us to age-related diseases. Following this, it’s clear that events of a purely psychological nature have significant potential for affecting our physical health and wellbeing. On a more positive note, however, this also means that we can protect ourselves from the harmful effects of stress by enhancing our psychological resilience.

Stress conditioning

One of the major problems with the health effects of psychological stress is that we tend to go into a stressful “overdrive” much more often than necessary. While certain situations (for example a mugging) obviously present a threat, we can become conditioned to respond to certain cues as if they posed an immediate threat to survival while in fact this is far from being the case. Such conditioning usually occurs early in life and causes certain brain regions to become primed as a result of emotionally-charged experiences that took place in key periods of development.

If, for example, a young child is not effectively soothed when distressed, or if he or she is repeatedly ignored or even neglected by the mother, the child’s brain might undergo specific changes and become conditioned to release certain brain chemicals at the very hint of distress. These brain changes can endure into adulthood and affect the way we perceive and react to all that’s happening to us. So, a mere slight from a partner or boss can activate the brain regions that had been sensitized to rejection, while a person expressing anger might be instantly perceived as a threat of attack or imminent violence.

The anatomy of stress

How does psychological “stress conditioning” affect us physically? As suggested above, the psychological phenomena involved in stress converge in the brain, especially in the brain areas responsible for our emotions and memory. One such area is the limbic system – a network of brain structures that is an important channel for the movement of information between the brain and the body. A key component of the limbic system is the amygdala, which is particularly sensitive to fear-related experiences.

In the face of danger, the amygdala shifts the brain and body into a survival mode, but to ensure survival, this brain region tends to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of a speedy response.

As a result, faced with a situation it perceives to be vaguely similar to past dangerous experiences, the amygdala can incorrectly assess the event as threatening. If the higher brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, which normally facilitates cognitive appraisal and perspective, become disconnected from the amygdala in such a way that the incoming information is not processed, or simply put, goes “off-line”, then the fear-mediating amygdala has full reign in the brain. Present experience thus becomes distorted by past experience and conditioning, such that “past” reality takes over the present, with its attendant physiological responses.

What makes stress stressful?

Now that we have seen that the brain is central to the way we interpret information, let us take a closer look at the purely psychological dimensions of stress. What is it that makes psychological stress stressful in our eyes?

To answer this question, let’s consider one of the clearest and most useful definitions of stress that has been developed by University of California researchers. According to them, psychological stress is a situation in which people appraise their relationship with the environment as being taxing, exceeding their resources or endangering their wellbeing.

This definition singles out two key dimensions of psychological stress:

  • The way we perceive or interpret what is happening to us or within us
  • Our capacity to cope with the demands of life, be they the "wear and tear" of daily living, including traffic jams, queues at the bank and work deadlines, or significant life events such as bereavement, illness or divorce.

These two key dimensions determine the stress “ranking” that each event receives in our eyes. Their relative importance, however, varies greatly from person to person and at different stages of an individual’s life. It is also influenced by a variety of factors related to our family history and upbringing, including early bonding with parents, traumatic experiences, level of education, innate and learned coping skills and social connectedness, to name but a few.

Out of control

The ill effects of stress on health crucially depend on the degree of control that we have – or think we have – over a situation. This dependency clearly emerges from experiments with laboratory animals: the animal's ability to choose a response to a particular stressor determines to what extent this animal is protected from developing stress-induced disease.

The same relationship holds true for humans. The degree to which we perceive ourselves as having control over what is happening to us significantly influences the intensity and duration of the stress response.

Put another way, the greater our capacity to choose a response to a stressful factor, the more protected we are from its harmful effects, particularly if the stress is chronic. Conversely, if we feel largely helpless, the result can be a maladaptive stress response that has harmful effects on the body.

Buffer states

In examining the factors that contribute to our sense of control, researchers have sought to answer the following question: Why do certain people, under very stressful conditions, appear to cope with the situation more effectively and become less ill than others? One major study on this topic has focused on survivors of Nazi concentration camps, while another monitored senior business executives during a hostile take-over.

The ability of concentration camp survivors to cope with stress varied depending on their sense of coherence, which included the following psychological elements:

  • The ability to make sense of their experience
  • The capacity to respond, even if the response was purely internal
  • Viewing the demands as challenges.

The stress response of business executives depended on their stress hardiness, which included the following core elements:

  • A take-charge attitude: the belief that one can influence one’s surroundings
  • Commitment: a high level of engagement in day to day activities and functioning
  • Challenge: seeing the changes as natural and viewing them as opportunities to grow and learn.

Both studies point to human capacities that can be increased or developed. We can increase our sense of coherence, as well as our stress hardiness, by adopting a proactive approach to life, becoming engaged in our activities and questioning how our lives might be enriched by the choices we make. And greater coherence and hardiness, in turn, can serve as a buffer that protects our health from the ill effects of chronic stress.

Stress-proofing your health

Perception is thus an unconscious lens through which we filter our experiences. The nature of that filter determines to a large degree whether psychological and social cues will trigger a stress response.

The obvious conclusion is that for reducing or managing the health impact of stress, you must optimise your perception of life's events. To achieve this goal, strive to bring the perceptual process itself into awareness by examining the dimensions that make up your individual and unique appraisal of the world.

As more and more of these crucial psychological dimensions become part of your conscious mind, you will increasingly be able to act in a manner that is more authentic and less harmful to yourself and to others. Moreover, you will improve your decision-making skills and – last but not least – gain meaningful insight into your own mind and life.

In summary

  • Psychological stress advances aging and predisposes to age-related disease.
  • By enhancing psychological resilience you can protect yourself against the harmful effects of stress.
  • Response to stress is usually preconditioned from early life experiences.
  • The ill effects of stress on health depend on the degree of control that we have - or think we have - over a situation.
  • To reduce and manage the health impacts of stress, you must optimise your perception of life’s events.

References

  1. Epel Es, Blackburn EH et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA 2004; 101:17312-17315
  2. Antonovsky A. The structure and properties of the sense of coherence scale. Sc Sci Med. 1993; 36:725-722
  3. Kobasa SC. Stressful life events, personality and health. An inquiry into hardiness.J. Pers. Soc Psychol. 1979; 37:1-11
  4. Sapolsky R. Why Zebras don’t get ulcers. New York. Henry Holt & Company:1994