We see the headlines all the time: “Stress makes you sick,” “Work makes you stressed,” “Stress makes you fat,” even “Stress Kills.” But why does all this happen? Why is stress so dangerous, and how do we know?
Luckily for us, there are a lot of outstanding neuroscientists, social scientists and others who are devoting their careers to answering these questions. Many of them are women, so in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would profile a few of them and the highlights from their work.
What socioemotional resources are available to us during stress and where do they originate?
Shelley E. Taylor is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. She is perhaps best known for the “Tend and Befriend” theory: the idea that our response to stressful situations is not always “fight or flight.” Sometimes primates, especially females, seek out social relationships to protect themselves and their offspring during stress. These “affiliative” behaviors may be mediated by the hormone oxytocin, or in men, vasopressin, which may act as a thermostat for social resources, triggering a hormone response when our social support goes too low.
How exactly does stress age us and why are we more likely to develop chronic diseases as we age?
It turns out that we have little caps on the ends of our chromosomes called “telomeres”. These are bit like the tips at the ends of our shoelaces. Just like shoelace tips, the telomeres stabilize the ends of the chromosomes and keep them from unraveling. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (along with Jack W. Szostak) won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how telomeres protect the chromosomes and how the enzyme telomerase maintains the length of the telomeres even as the cells divide. If we don’t have enough telomerase, and cells keep dividing as they do, eventually telomeres get so short that cells die — limiting years of healthy life. And guess what has an impact on telomerase — stress!
How does that cell aging manifest itself physically and psychologically?
Elissa Epel of UCSF studies cell aging in people with major depression and those who suffer acute and chronic psychosocial stress. She has focused on the role of telomerase and the stress pathways that lead to early aging, overeating, abdominal obesity and immune responses. She is also involved with interventions using mindfulness and social support to help lower stress reactivity and improve emotion regulation.
How does social status impact our stress levels and their health consequences?
Carol Shively, of Wake Forest University, studies monkeys and other primates to explore how social stress might lead to depression and greater susceptibility to disease. She has found that animals who are lower on the social ladder for extended periods of time have twice as much hardening of the arteries as dominant animals. Other studies have shown similar patterns in humans.
Why do we want to eat comfort food during stress, and why do we gain fat around the abdomen?
Comfort foods and abdominal fat actually reduce stress and make us feel better. Mary Dallman, also at UCSF, studies the brain-pituitary-adrenal interrelationships and how chronic stress effects changes in energy balance. She has found that every type of cell in the body has receptors for glucocorticoids [stress hormones], which means that stress can potentially cause havoc everywhere. It also leads to an increase in the synthesis of fat and glucose, while protein synthesis declines, throwing off how we process the food we eat.
In spite of all this stress, how can we be happy?
Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, studies human happiness, what makes people happy, and how people can become happier. Her work shows that while we all have temperaments that make us more or less happy to begin with, a fairly significant percentage of our potential for happiness is open to change. Her research has found that generally happy people tend to interpret events in a positive way that supports their happiness, while chronically unhappy people tend to interpret the same events in ways that bolster their unhappiness. So she also studies how the thoughts and behaviors of the naturally happy people an be encouraged or taught to those who are less positive.
The takeaways from all of this work are 1) stress is toxic; 2) it affects all of us; and 3) there are ways to reduce its impact on our health. I’m grateful to these scientists, and so many others, for the intellect and passion they have devoted to this work. It has informed my teaching, inspired my writing and improved my personal wellness.