Written and researched by Bob Murray, PhD
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Stress Sparks Male Foetus Death
May 25, 2006
A woman's body may actively kill off weaker male foetuses during times of stress, new research suggests. It is known that fewer boys tend to be born during times of hardship, such as a natural disaster. Male foetuses and embryos are weaker than females and are less likely to survive to birth. However it is not known why this should be the case.
University of California researchers examined data on Swedish births from 1751 to 1912. These findings demonstrate yet again that we need not go to museums of natural history to find evidence of natural selection.
Two explanations have been suggested as to why the proportion of newborn boys often dips sharply during times of stress. One is that mothers' stress responses damage their unborn babies, affecting already weaker males disproportionately and spontaneously aborting more males than usual. But a competing explanation is that mothers' bodies under stress have less tolerance for unhealthy embryos and foetuses, and thus spontaneously abort offspring that would have been otherwise carried to birth. The scientists said their analysis supported the latter explanation.
Lead researcher Dr Ralph Catalano said that if stress was simply damaging male foetuses then it could be expected that even those boys that made it to full term would be damaged, and consequently their life expectancy would be shorter. However, the researchers found the opposite to be true. Those males that survive to full-term actually lived longer than the average.
This suggested that only weak foetuses were selectively targeted by the mother's body, giving more robust males every opportunity to thrive. They argued that actively culling weak male foetuses might increase the overall chance that a woman's genetic line will survive down the generations, as weak individuals were more likely to produce fewer offspring.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said their findings may also have implications for public health. Changes in the proportion of male and female newborns may give a clue as to what proportion of the population are likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses.
Read more in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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Katrina, Kids and PTSD
Nov 1, 2005
The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina have been felt across the country during the past weeks. Thousands of children are survivors of Katrina, while millions of others around the country have observed horrific sights via media coverage. Although they were not directly involved with the tragedy, repeated television viewing of the disaster puts these children at high risk for
developing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
"Research on the impact of the World Trade Center attack indicates that children who viewed more television news of the attack were two times as likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than children with lower TV exposure," said Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., Director of the NYU Child Study Center. "Our job as parents is to protect our kids from unnecessary media coverage of this event. Good parents will stop the television."
The NYU Child Study Center recommends that parents limit television viewing of the disaster for children under 12 years of age, and eliminate all viewing when possible. For teenagers ages 12-17 it can be harder to completely eliminate television. Parents should take this opportunity to start a dialogue about the events, making sure kids understand what has occurred and know that they can
continue the conversation if future questions or concerns arise.
Kids' questions and concerns are likely to be tough to answer, but as with all important discussions, keeping communication lines open is critical and honesty is essential. Some concerns don't get settled quickly, and more than one conversation may be necessary as events unfold.
"The effects of witnessing or being a victim of Katrina will vary for children depending on their age, how they experienced the event and their ability to understand what has happened," said Marylene Cloitre, Ph.D., Director of the NYU Child Study Center Institute for Trauma and Stress. "Parents should allow children to express themselves, give them a sense of security, and be open and available to discuss various issues."
They suggest the following advice for parents, family or teachers to help their children cope with the recent or similar tragedies:
- Limit both your own and your children's exposure to television reports of the event.
- Discuss the tragedy, but start by finding out what your child understands about the event. Be available for more than one conversation; children's understanding of events and their questions will change over time.
- Reassure your child of their current safety, and remind them of all the different resources in your community that provide them with safety.
- Maintain as usual a routine as possible. Maintaining normal bedtimes and participating in familiar activities provides children with a sense of normalcy.
- When children receive news of a sad and shocking event it is normal for them to have some fluctuations in mood and irritability. Some children will become more clingy and may seek and need more reassurance and contact with caregivers.
- Help your child regain a sense of control. Let them be proactive by taking them to purchase a toy or other needed goods for a child who was affected by the hurricane.
If you are concerned about your child's reactions to Hurricane Katrina, listen to your parental intuition. A child who has an intense or prolonged reaction, or begins having difficulties at school, with their peers, or at home may need help from a counselor or other mental health professional.
For more information and resources on how to help your child deal with Hurricane Katrina or other traumatic events, visit AboutOurKids.org
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PTSD in the Womb
June 6, 2005
In writing our new book on preventing depression in very young children one of the things we noted was how kids could be born depressed or anxious depending on their mothers' experiences--especially negative relationship stressors--during pregnancy.
Now new research published in the May edition of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism shows that pregnant women who witnessed the September 11 World Trade Center collapse have passed on markers of posttraumatic stress disorder to their unborn babies through transgenerational transmission. The findings strengthen the evidence for in utero or early life risk factors for the later development of adult mental or physical disorders.
Previous studies led researchers to believe that reduced cortisol levels observed in the adult children of Holocaust survivors could be attributed to mostly environmental factors, such as the stress of living with a parent who is depressed or anxious, or the experience of vicarious traumatization based on hearing stories of how parents suffered, rather than a "transmitted" biological trait.
"In the current study, reduced stress hormone levels were observed in infants, suggesting a larger role for very early environmental, genetic, or genetic-environmental interactions than previously thought," explains Rachel Yehuda, PhD, principal investigator of the study.
Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the University of Edinburgh studied the relationship between maternal PTSD symptoms and salivary cortisol levels in 38 women and their infants. Mothers who experienced symptoms of PTSD in response to 9/11 had lower cortisol levels compared to mothers who did not develop this condition. Moreover, approximately one year after birth, the babies of mothers who had developed PTSD symptoms had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to that in babies of mothers who developed only minimal symptoms. This decrease in cortisol levels among the infants was similar to their mothers' hormonal response to PTSD.
Since lower cortisol levels in relation to maternal PTSD were most apparent in babies born to mothers who were in their third trimester on 9/11, the data implicate the possibility of in utero effects as contributors to a putative biological risk factor for PTSD.
"The findings suggest that mechanisms for transgenerational transmission of biologic effects of trauma may have to do with very early parent-child attachments," says Dr Yehuda, "and possibly even in utero effects related to cortisol programming."
Read more in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
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Humor Heightens Hope
May 1, 2005
Laughter might be the best medicine for transforming the faintest of glimmers of hope into an eternal spring, reveals research at Texas A&M University that shows humor may significantly increase a person's level of hope.
The experience of humor can positively influence a person's state of hopefulness, says psychologist David H. Rosen who, along with colleagues studied nearly 200 subjects ranging in age from 18-42.
As part of the study, which appeared in the International Journal of Humor Research, select participants viewed a 15-minute comedy video. Those that viewed the video had statistically significant increases in their scores for hopefulness after watching it as compared with those that did not view the video, Rosen notes.
The finding, he says, is important because it underscores how humor can be a legitimate strategy for relieving stress and maintaining a general sense of well-being while increasing a person's hope. Previous studies have found that as high as 94 percent of people deem lightheartedness as a necessary factor in dealing with difficulties associated with stressful life events, he says.
Rosen says humor may competitively inhibit negative thoughts with positive ones, and in so doing, foster hope in people. Positive emotions, such as those arising from experiencing humor, can stimulate thought and prompt people to discard automatic behavioral responses and pursue more creative paths of thought and action, he explains.
Such a process, Rosen says, could lead to a person experiencing a greater sense of self-worth when dealing with specific problems or stressful events. He says these positive emotions could, in turn, lead to an increase in a person's ability to develop a "plan of attack" for a specific problem as well as increase a person's perceived ability to overcome obstacles in dealing with that problem--two aspects that psychologists believe comprise hope.
During the course of the study, Rosen found that there was little or no relationship between hope and the number of stressors experienced throughout the past month, but did find a relationship between severity of the stressors and a decrease in hope. This suggests that the accumulated severity of recent stressors seem to have more of am impact on hope than the actual number of stressors, he says.
In the study, sense of humor was not only represented as the tendency to display laughter, smiles and other similar responses, but was measured across four factors--humor production, humor as a coping strategy, attitudes toward humorous people and attitudes about humor.
We use humor extensively in the Uplift Program. BM
Read more in the International Journal of Humor Research
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March 1, 2005
Married women who avoid conflict with their spouses are at greater risk of dying, researchers reported recently at the Second International Conference on Women, Heart Disease and Stroke.
Researchers also found that men whose wives come home upset with work outside the home have an increased risk of developing heart disease.
Researchers examined information on participants of the Framingham Offspring Study, a large, ongoing community study that tracks the incidence and prevalence of cardiovascular disease and other social and demographic characteristics such as marital strain in the Framingham, Mass., community.
Previous studies have shown a link between levels of marital strain and the health of people with heart disease. However, few studies have looked into the effects of marital strain on contributing to heart disease or death from any cause, said Elaine D Eaker, ScD, principal investigator of the ancillary study of the Framingham Offspring Study.
Together with researchers from Boston University, Eaker collected data that analyzed marital discord. They determined traditional measures (satisfaction and disagreements) and more contemporary ones (conflict resolution and other interpersonal communication issues). The study included 1,769 men and 1,913 women between ages 18 and 77. Researchers conducted the baseline examinations from 1984-87. Of these participants, 1,493 men and 1,501 women were married or "living in a marital situation." The researchers tracked the health of the participants for 10 years to determine if they developed heart disease or died.
"Married men were heavier, older, and had higher blood pressure and a less favorable lipid profile compared to unmarried men," Eaker said. "Unmarried men were more likely to be smokers."
After the researchers made statistical adjustments for age, systolic blood pressure, body mass index, cigarette smoking, diabetes, and the ratio of total and high-density (or "good") cholesterol, married men were about half as likely to die compared to unmarried men.
On the other hand, marital status and the more traditional measures of marital strain had no effect on women developing heart disease or dying over 10 years of follow up. However, when considering more contemporary measures, two types of marital strain were found to be significantly related to the health of married women as well as men.
Men who reported that their wives' work was disruptive to their home life because their wives came home upset with work were more than two times more likely to develop heart disease. Women who reported usually or always keeping their feelings to themselves when in conflict with their husbands, known as self-silencing, had more than four times the risk of dying from any cause compared to women who always show their feelings.
Eaker noted that this is the first time marital strain -- as measured by disruption to one's life due to a spouse's work situation and self-silencing during conflict with one's spouse -- has been included in a longitudinal study of the development of heart disease and death. "These findings are unique," Eaker said. "We believe we have found characteristics of marriages that have an impact on peoples' health and longevity. Based on the strength of the associations we observed and the strengths of the design of the Framingham Offspring Study, we also believe there are some practical implications for clinical practice. While medical care providers are not specifically trained to intervene on psychosocial issues such as marital characteristics, they may be the most likely contact to observe or uncover these characteristics or emotions."
Eaker suggested that screening questions be added to medical history questionnaires to uncover psychosocial stressors, allowing for counseling referrals if appropriate. The research substantiates previous studies that found married men have a survival advantage over unmarried men. Eaker recommended that healthcare providers should also consider the physical and emotional risk factors among unmarried men.
Read more in the Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association
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Traumatic Events Affect Adults as Well as Children
January 11, 2005
Cumulative trauma during a person's lifetime can have an overall effect on health in one's later years, according to a study that examines the consequences of traumatic events on older adults' physical health. Also, traumas experienced in adulthood compared to traumas experienced in childhood appear to cause more damage to an older person's (65 and older) health, say researchers of a new study reported on in the December issue of Psychology and Aging.
Traumas are distinguished from other types of stressful life events by their seriousness, like experiencing a serious or life threatening illness, witnessing a violent crime or being in combat.
In a study of 1,518 older adults from a nationwide survey, researchers Neal Krause, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Benjamin A Shaw, PhD, of the University of Albany at SUNY and John Cairney, PhD, at Toronto University examined whether cumulative trauma across a person's lifetime affected a person's self-rated health, occurrence of acute and chronic conditions and functional disability.
Three different ages in the study were examined: young old (65-74), old old (75-84) and oldest old (85 and older). The results show that trauma occurring between 18 and 30 years and between 31 to 64 years had the greatest affect on the person's current health. Interestingly, say the authors, adversity encountered in adult life affected adult health more than adversity encountered in childhood.
The young old (age 65-74) seem to be affected the most by their traumatic events and this may be because of historical reasons, said Dr Krause. This age group grew up after WWII during the Eisenhower years and experienced good economic times for most of their adulthood. "They placed a lot of value on stability and living the American Dream. If and when their expectations and dreams were changed dramatically by a traumatic event, their coping abilities may not have been developed enough to help them. This set them up for health problems in their later years."
The second oldest group--the old old group may have built up some resilience from growing up in a time period that prepared them for later adversities, said the authors. This group faced WWII and was surrounded by all the stresses of war and economic shortages. They were patriotic, self-reliant and had a respect for authority and were able to handle self-sacrifice. These conditions probably helped them develop some resilience against unexpected trauma in their later years, said the authors.
Those born before 1919 (the oldest old) who entered adulthood during the Great Depression--a time of great insecurity--may be similar to the youngest group as far as being more vulnerable to traumatic events. This group was likely to be more afraid of taking risks because of growing up in an economic climate of desperation. According to the authors, this age group may not have mastered certain problem solving skills because of their fear of the unknown. This may have hindered their ability to develop better coping responses to adversity, said the authors.
Some of the 22 traumas examined in the study were: death of a spouse; death of a child; disaster; serious/life-threatening illness; repeating a year of school before the age of 18; either parent unemployed for a period of time before the age of 18, or death of a parent before the age of 18.
From these study findings, said Dr Krause, health practitioners can extrapolate why some older people fall ill while others do not. "It may be necessary to routinely ask older people who are having health problems if they experienced a trauma during the intake examination. Many health care providers already ask about stressful events when taking medical histories but knowing if trauma existed may provide additional insight to a person's current state of health," said Dr Krause.
Read more in Psychology and Aging (pdf)
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At Last! Help for Stressed-Out Cats!
November 6, 2004
Cats, like humans, can develop stress-related illness, University of Edinburgh experts have found. This will come as no surprise to any cat-owner. Moggies are not always the calm, purring balls of fur that they are painted to be.
Significant life-changes like moving house or the arrival of a new member of the family can lead to bladder problems in some cats (ooops!), say the animal specialists. But the biggest stressor of all for a cat is when it doesn't get along with other cats in the house, studies have shown. Cat fights are, as we all know, very stressful events.
Cat health professionals at the University's Hospital for Small Animals studied the lifestyles of a group of cats with no apparent physical cause for their bladder problems and compared them with a control group of disease-free cats. They found that the sick cats were generally more anxious, and were particularly stressed by being in conflict with other cats in the house.
Dr Danielle Gunn-Moore, a senior lecturer in feline medicine at the University of Edinburgh Royal School of Veterinary Studies, explained: "Feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) is a group of diseases of the bladder, most commonly seen in pedigree, middle-aged, overweight male cats which take little exercise, use an indoor litter box, don't go out much and eat
a dry food diet." Except for the dry food bit this sounds like my and Alicia's late, and much loved, kitty Sops (but then he was far, far from being pedigreed). He lived to be over 20, so being a fat cat is not all bad.
"This condition is particularly frustrating for vets and owners, because most cases have no apparent cause, and are categorised (sic) as feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). Earlier studies led us to believe that stress could be a trigger factor for FIC, and we wanted to identify differences in the cats' environments and temperaments which might be causing this condition."
This latest, questionnaire-based study compared 31 cats with FIC to 24 cats in the same households that did not have cystitis. These were in turn compared with a control group of 125 healthy cats. Dr Gunn-Moore said: "Although many owners of cats taking part in the study reported that a fear of strangers was the most common problem they observed, this tends to be a short-term stressor. If a cat is living with another cat where there is a conflict, this is a chronic situation causing long-term stress. We concluded that this is a significant factor in the development FIC, and will be carrying out further studies to see how best this and other stress factors can be overcome."
Dr Gunn-Moore recommends that cats that have FLUTD or FIC should be fed wet food, and encouraged to drink more fluid. This can be done, for example, by adding tuna-flavoured ice-cubes to water, or offering water fountains to encourage them to drink. A small, separate pilot study by Dr Gunn-Moore's team used a synthetic soothing scent to reduce anxiety showed a trend for cats exposed to the scent to have fewer episodes of FIC. More work will continue on this study.
The study is as yet unpublished.
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Errant Enzyme Linked to Bipolar Disorder
November 6, 2004
The link between depression (unipolar disorder) and manic-depression (bipolar disorder) has been the subject of a lot of conjecture and study recently. Are they entirely separate diseases, or is bipolar a variant of unipolar disorder? The answer is important both for the development of medications and appropriate therapies.
A new study has now found that the disturbed thinking, impaired judgment, impulsivity, and distractibility seen in mania, a destructive phase of bipolar disorder, may be traceable to overactivity of protein kinase C.
The finding explains how even mild stress can worsen cognitive symptoms, as occurs in bipolar disoder, which affects two million Americans.
Abnormalities in the cascade of events that trigger PKC have also been implicated in schizophrenia the researchers led by Amy Arnsten, PhD report in the October 29, 2004 issue of Science.
"Either direct or indirect activation of PKC dramatically impaired the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, a higher brain region that allows us to appropriately guide our behavior, thoughts and emotions," explained Arnsten. "PKC activation led to a reduction in memory-related cell firing, the code cells use to hold information in mind from moment-to-moment. Exposure to mild stress activated PKC and resulted in prefrontal dysfunction, while inhibiting PKC protected cognitive function."
"In the future, drugs that inhibit PKC could become the preferred emergency room treatments for mania," the researchers added. "All current treatments--lithium, valproate, carbamazepine and antipsychotics--take days, if not weeks, to work. That's because they're likely acting far upstream of where a key problem is, namely in the PKC pathway. Since PKC inhibitors could act more directly, they might quench symptoms more quickly. Patients could carry PKC inhibitors and take them preventively, as soon as they sense a manic episode coming on."
The fact that the current anti-psychotic drugs used to treat mania ultimately reduce PKC activity suggests that PKC may be a final common target of these treatments and may play a key role in bipolar disorder. Susceptibility to bipolar disorder may involve variants of genes that code for a key PKC precursor and for a stress-sensitive signaling protein that normally puts the brakes on PKC activity.
The new study shows how PKC triggers cognitive symptoms in response to stress. When the stress-sensitive messenger chemical norepinephrine binds to receptors on cell membranes in the prefrontal cortex, it activates PKC through a cascade of events. The enzyme then travels out to the cell membrane, opening ion channels that heighten the cell's excitability, and stoking protein machinery that propels neurotransmitters into the synapse. PKC also moves into the cell's nucleus, where it turns-on genes.
The researchers traced impairment to a reduction in memory-related firing of single cells in the prefrontal cortex, which was reversible by a PKC inhibitor. Genetic and biochemical studies indicate that PKC may also be overactive in the brains of patients with schizophrenia. Antipsychotics, which are used to treat bipolar disorder as well as schizophrenia, block receptors in the brain that activate PKC.
Read more in Science
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Bullied Workers Suffer "Battle Stress"
September 1, 2004
Soldiers under fire in Iraq and workers at some of our largest corporations are at risk. They are both in a battleground and both face enormous stress according to research carried out by a leading British psychologist.
Dr Noreen Tehrani has counselled victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland, soldiers returning from combat overseas and victims of workplace bullying. According to her "The symptoms displayed by people who have been in conflict situations and workplaces where bullying happens are strikingly similar."
Her findings tie in closely with my own experience of working both with veterans and corporate managers and executives.
According to Dr Tehrani, who was interviewed by the BBC News Online, "Both groups suffer nightmares, are jumpy and seem fuelled by too much adrenaline. In addition, they show greater susceptibility to illnesses, heart disease and alcoholism."
Psychologists define corporate bullying as persistent devaluing demeaning or harassing of someone at work.
To back up her years of experience, Dr Tehrani conducted a study of 165 professionals in the caring sector such as nurses and social workers. Bullying managers grab the headlines but it also occurs between people on the same grade or even on occasions subordinates can intimidate their boss. Again this accords with our own experience of working with the nursing and support staff in some of our major hospitals in Australia and the US.
Dr Tehrani found that 36% of the men and 42% of the women reported having experienced bullying. Overall, one in five people exhibited the main symptoms of PTSD.
The three most obvious signs of PTSD are hyper-arousal, a feeling of constant anxiety and over-vigilance; avoidance of anything to do with the traumatizing event; and re-experiencing, in which subjects suffer flashbacks or obsessive thoughts concerning the trauma.
Early signs of workplace bullying are sickness and absenteeism, Dr Tehrani added.
Bullying can take many forms from malicious gossiping to overt physical violence. "Generally, male bullies indulge in quite physical and loud verbal bullying," Dr Tehrani told the BBC. "Female bullies favour a strictly psychological approach to inflicting pain on others such as gossip and persistent criticism."
However the image of the bullying boss terrorizing staff doesn't paint the whole picture. Bullying managers grab the headlines, but it also occurs between people on the same grade or even on occasions subordinates can intimidate their boss. A manager or boss who is a bully gives the green light for bullying to occur throughout the organization. Firms tend to take on the psychological profiles of their CEOs, and other research as estimated that between 5 and 15% of all CEOs are psychopaths.
There are no hard and fast estimates as to how much workplace bullying costs the economy. However, research conducted for the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) by the Lancaster University Management School 2002 suggested that bullying in the UK workplace is rife.
Bullied employees take, on average, seven days per year more sick leave than others. "The cost to firms must be astronomical, many millions of pounds, and that doesn't include the mental impact on workers," said Professor Cary Cooper, co-author of the study.
In addition, it appears that bullying can have a negative impact on observers. "Our research showed that witnesses to the bullying suffered many of the same mental problems as the people being bullied," said Professor Cooper. (See our article PTSD and Childhood Trauma.)
Bullying was found to be particularly prevalent in the police, prison service, teaching and healthcare professions. The UK government is so worried about the problem of bullying in the public sector that is has given the Amicus trade union £1m to conduct research into its causes.
Read more in BBC News Online
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Constant Confrontation And Defeat May Break Your Heart
August 4, 2004
It has long been known that stress is bad for the heart and also that prolonges exposure to certain stressors can result in permanent changes to the body's sympathetic nervous system (including blood pressure levels and heart rate).
A new study has shown that the same is true of social stressors as well. Using mice as a substitute for humans (the response systems are very similar) researchers have now found that if a mammal such as us is exposed to on-going social stressors of particular kinds (defeat, confrontation etc) the damage can be long lasting.
What happens is that the body adapts to these stressors by having a permanently faster heart beat, higher blood pressure and so forth. These remain even when the original stress is removed. With other stressors (loss, bereavement, poverty etc), even when they are on-going the nervous system adapts to them and the sympathetic-adrenomedullary system returns to normal.
This is one of the reasons why people who grew up in violent neighborhoods, or families, tend to be on permanent alert for danger and expect others to be aggressive to them even long after they have left that environment.
Read more in the American Journal of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology
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Stress and Trauma Increase Risk of Depressive and Anxiety Disorders
May 11, 2004
The idea that stress or adversity (major and potentially traumatic events experienced during one's lifetime) affect health and wellbeing is widely accepted by the public and by many researchers and physicians. Evidence has accumulated linking exposure to recent stressful events with psychological distress, most typically with depressive symptoms.
However R Jay Turner, PhD, and Donald A Lloyd, PhD, of Florida State University, Tallahassee, investigated whether lifetime exposure to adversity was a risk factor for the later onset of depressive and anxiety disorders. The researchers conducted a 1,803 interviews among a sample of individuals aged 18 to 23 years living in a southern Florida community.
Participants were interviewed and were assessed for major depression, dysthymia (a mild, chronic form of depression), generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, alcohol abuse and dependence, drug abuse and dependence, posttraumatic stress disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Interviewers also asked about specific kinds of stressful events or traumatic incidents over the course of the participants' lifetimes.
The researchers found that the level of lifetime exposure to adversity was associated with an increased risk of developing depressive or anxiety disorders. The researchers write: "As previously reported, these results indicate that exposure to major and potentially traumatic events is commonplace among young people, at least in South Florida. The typical African American in the sample had experienced more than nine such events, and the remaining three groups [Cuban, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white] averaged more than six. A total of 26 of the 33 events examined were associated with significantly increased risk for a depressive or anxiety disorder."
This latest research has added to the growing body of data which confirms that on-going depression has its origins in childhood trauma, and in particular in a failure of relationships early in life over which the child has no control.
Read more in The Archives of General Psychiatry
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Unemployment Can Be Fatal
May 11, 2004
Human beings were never meant to feel useless. Throughout their lives our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have progressed from being active hunters or gatherers to being wise elders but their worth actually increased with age. There was never any sense of being "retired" or "unemployed." Not so now. But the more we relegate people into these two categories, the more stressed they become and the more liable to psychological and emotional pain.
A new Yale University study underlies this social dysfunction vividly. The researchers found that employees who lose their jobs in the years immediately preceding retirement have twice the risk of suffering a stroke when compared to peers who are still working.
"Our results suggest that late career involuntary job loss more than doubles the risk of subsequent stroke," said William Gallo, the senior author of the study and associate research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine.
The researchers used six years of data from the national Health and Retirement Survey to identify 457 workers who were either laid off or left jobless because of a plant shutdown. The comparison group included 3,763 older persons who were still employed. All of the participants were born between 1931 and 1941. The researchers also took into account other risk factors such as smoking, problem drinking, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and mental health.
Gallo and co-authors studied the risk of both heart attack and stroke among older persons who lose their jobs. They found no link between involuntary unemployment and heart attack. The link with the incidence of strokes, however, was significant.
Gallo said the findings reveal the need for increased health education concerning potential health risks of job loss, added screening and prevention efforts during employment transitions, extended insurance coverage, or outreach programs to connect displaced workers with needed health services.
More fundamentally, it seems to us, is a change in society's attitude to the whole question of work and retirement. Human beings should never be made to feel useless or a burden on society or without value.
Read more in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine
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April 3, 2004
I got my tax return in early. I find that getting it out of the way as soon after the new year as the banks can get their tax data to me a less stressful way of doing things than waiting until the last moment as most people seem to do.
In fact a new survey just published as tax deadline (April 15) approaches claims that Americans find money to be the number one cause of stress.
A survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 73% of Americans single out money, with 33% saying it is a very significant factor contributing to stress. Work, physical health and children follow next.
The survey of 1,000 Americans was conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland from January 26-27. All respondents were between the ages of 18 and 64 years old.
"Stress related to money worries can have a real impact on people's psychological health," says Russ Newman, Ph.D., J.D., Executive Director for Professional Practice at the American Psychological Association. "And with tax filing deadlines upon us, many people may be experiencing additional stress. But people can learn to manage financial stressors and other life challenges by taking steps to build and enhance their resilience."
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, or even significant sources of stress such as family, health, workplace or financial stressors. Resilience primarily involves building a network of supportive relationships. We have long held that the primary cause of stress, anxiety, depression and similar ailments was the lack of functional relationships. More and more research is backing this up.
Our Uplift Program and our latest book Creating Optimism teach people how to form resilience-enabling relationships.
Read more in the American Psychological Association
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Infections Could Prolong Life
December 16, 2003
The present flu epidemic in the United States has led to widespread panic as people call to mind the devastating one early in the last century which killed millions of people world-wide. Some people are afraid to go out of their houses or into public places. How timely, then is new research which shows that a mild flu or a cold may actually be a good thing.
Researchers writing in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell say that these bursts of stress "turn on" key genes which encode protective molecules. However, if the stress is too great, if the flu is too severe, then damage may be done.
Scientists from Northwestern University in Illinois, US, studied C elegans, a transparent roundworm whose biochemical environment is similar to that of human beings (and why not--we even share a large percentage of our genetic inheritance with seaweed or moss). They focused on heat shock factor, the master gene that controls the expression of molecular chaperones, special protective chemicals that respond to stress in a cell.
Molecular chaperones "tidy up" damaged proteins in cells. Stress triggers this reaction, prolonging life by preventing or delaying cell damage. Much the same thing happens with emotional stressors--we need a certain amount of stress but too much can be hurtful and lead to more serious physical and psychological complications.
The scientists found that when heat shock factor genes were over-expressed, the worms' lifespan increased. But if they were under-expressed, the opposite was true. Professor Richard Morimoto, who led the research, said: "Sustained stress definitely is not good for you, but it appears that an occasional burst of stress or low levels of stress can be very protective. Brief exposure to environmental and physiological stress has long-term benefits to the cell because it unleashes a great number of molecular chaperones that capture all kinds of damaged and misfolded proteins."
more in Molecular Biology of the Cell
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Stress Linked to Multiple Sclerosis
September 21, 2003
Stressful life events seem to make the symptoms of multiple sclerosis worse, a British Medical Journal study suggests. Dutch researchers followed 73 patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. They found during periods of stress patients were twice as likely to develop new symptoms, or a more severe form of their existing symptoms.
The reason for the apparent link is unclear, although it is possible that stress triggers the release of hormones that affect the immune system.
The finding suggests that giving people with MS coaching on how to deal with stress may help to delay the development of symptoms. Researcher Dr Rogier Hintzen, a neurologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, said: "The knowledge that stressful events are associated with disease activity adds important information to the limited insight that patients and their care givers have on this unpredictable disease."
MS is caused by a malfunctioning of the immune system, which attacks the coating of the nerves. Symptoms include tingling, fatigue, loss of balance and slurred speech. The majority of patients experience periods when their symptoms become worse, followed by periods of stability. However, there has been much debate about just what role, if any, psychological stress plays in determining the progression of the disease.
Read more in the British Medical Journal
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Chronic Stress Can Interfere with Immune System
November 12, 2002
Chronic stress not only makes people more vulnerable to catching illnesses but can also impair their immune system's ability to respond to its own anti-inflammatory signals that are triggered by certain hormones, say researchers, possibly altering the course of an inflammatory disease. This finding is reported on in the November/December '02 issue of Health Psychology.
Chronic stress seems to impair the immune system's capacity to respond to glucocorticoid hormones that normally are responsible for terminating an inflammatory response following infection and/or injury, according to researchers Gregory E Miller, PhD, of Washington University, and colleagues.
To examine what happens to people's immune systems during on-going stressful situations, the researchers compared 25 healthy parents with children undergoing treatment for pediatric cancer with 25 healthy parents with healthy children on measures of mental health, effects of social support and certain immune system responses. All the parents had blood drawn at the initial session and salivary cortisol samples taken at intermittent times over two days.
Parents of cancer patients reported more psychological distress than parents with healthy children, according to the study. The parents of cancer patients also were found to have diminished glucocorticoid sensitivity compared to parents of medically healthy children. This hormone is responsible for turning off the in vitro production of the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-1B, interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor, said Dr Miller.
The good news found by the researchers was that social support lessened the immunologic consequences of caring for a child with cancer, perhaps by helping the parents deal with the economic, work and family disruptions caused by the disease and its treatment. "These findings suggest a novel mechanism through which psychological stress could influence the onset and/or progression of conditions that involve excessive inflammation, like allergic, autoimmune, cardiovascular, infectious and rheumatologic illnesses," says Dr Miller.
But even though the cancer patient parents reported more depressive symptoms, depression does not seem to operate as a mediator. It may be that anxiety, intrusive thoughts, feelings of helplessness or lack of sleep may be influencing the stress-related reductions in glucocorticoid sensitivity.
Reported in the Nov/Dec '02 issue of Health Psychology
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Stress Illness Linked to Brain Shape
October 22, 2002
The chances of combat veterans, civilian victims of war and disaster survivors experiencing psychological damage may be determined by the shape of their brains before the trauma hits them, scientists have found.
Researchers in the US looked at 40 pairs of identical twins where one twin had seen combat in Vietnam and the other had stayed at home. More than 40% of the Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a clear link was found between the size of a region of their brains, the hippocampus, and which veterans were affected.
Previously it was thought the hippocampus, which is in a central part of the brain, had been damaged by the disorder. But the US researchers found that the stay-at-home siblings of PTSD-suffering veterans also had smaller than average hippocampi. In other words, say the scientists in the latest online edition of Nature Neuroscience, some GIs sent into combat were doomed to suffer the harsh consequences of PTSD.
People with the disorder experience flashbacks and nightmares. PTSD sufferers display emotional numbness or outbursts and problems with memory and concentration. Sometimes their symptoms are complicated as they turn to drugs such as alcohol in a form of self-treatment. It affects not only victims of war and natural disasters but those who have suffered violence, sexual abuse, bullying and other situations of extreme stress.
Much work will need to be done before the new findings are widely accepted, but if they are, they may lead to brain screening in recruitment for jobs like soldiering or police work which involve experiencing extreme events.
The PTSD study, led by Mark Gilbertson of the Veterans Administration Medical Centre in New Hampshire, tried to account for factors like the tendency towards alcoholism among sufferers. They admitted there were flaws, however, such as the fact that small hippocampi have been observed only in those who have suffered PTSD after sustained periods of high-stress experience, not in those who have suffered a single high-stress episode, like a serious car accident.
Previous studies have shown that depression is linked to a smaller hippocamput and that childhood trauma is probably the cause. BM
Read more in Psychport
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Stressed Britons Turn to Drink
July 7, 2002
Record numbers of stressed-out Britons are hitting the bottle to overcome their symptoms, the findings published by market analysts Datamonitor suggest. The study indicates that stress-related spending on drink in the UK came to almost 21bn British pounds in 2001, compared with just over 90bn for the rest of Europe put together.
Researchers used questionnaires to determine how much of the alcohol consumed was bought to alleviate stress. The survey results portray a Europe populated by uptight individuals looking for ways to wind down. Most people's concerns were related to work and commuting, but some were also linked with family and socialising.
To ease the pressure they turned to alcohol, as well as other pampering products.
What, you may ask, is the profile of a stressed-out person? According to Datamonitor a person under stress is:
- Makes snap decisions
- Wants convenience
- Eats out or buys takeaways
- Less willing to experiment with new ideas
- Sticks to brand names when shopping
- Prepared to pay out for ways to relax
Datamonitor spoke to 500 consumers in seven European countries and found 47% suffered from stress -- ranging from mild to extreme. The survey indicates more people buy alcohol than any other type of product when they want to wind down. After alcoho come ready-made meals, hot drinks and personal care items.
Levels of stress-buying across Europe are up from 82bn pounds in 1996 to 96bn pounds last year, discounting inflation rises.
Our Audio-cassettes featuring Repatterning Movements and our "Connecting" meditation set are perfect for stress relief. BM
Read more in BBC News
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Stress Not Linked to Breast Cancer Relapse
June 24, 2002
The news, published in the British Medical Journal, will come as a welcome relief to breast cancer sufferers, already stressed by their illness. There had been fears that stressful life experiences might lead to recurrences. In fact, the researchers admitted they were surprised to find that this was not the case.
Jill Graham, health psychologist, said the team from Cancer Research UK London Psychological Group and Guy's, King's and St Thomas's School of Medicine, studied over 200 women with breast cancer and quizzed them about their lives. She wrote: "The results suggest that women with breast cancer need not fear that stressful experiences will precipitate the return of their disease. We really were surprised that there was not a link. We did a study in the late 1980s where we found it was a risk, but we had some concerns about the methodology."
The women studied had suffered a variety of life traumas ranging from discovering their child had been sexually abused or involved in crime, to discovering their husband was being unfaithful or getting a divorce. Researcher Professor Amanda Ramirez of Cancer Research UK's London Psychological group said the study on women under 60 should prove reassuring.
"For many years women have believed that experiencing stress in life might cause their cancer to return and that avoiding undue stress is paramount. Our research means we can confidently reassure women that experiencing difficulties in life will not affect their chances of suffering a recurrence of the disease."
Read more in the British Medical Journal
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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