Study shows daily stress impacts mental health

If it ever seems like all the stress in your life may be driving you to the edge, it just might be.

Susan Charles, UC Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior, along with her colleagues, conducted a study investigating the long-term effects of minor stress events in people’s lives.

“If you were to ask the average educated person today about their physical and mental health … they’ll often mention such behaviors as not smoking, maintaining a balanced diet and exercising regularly, but it is unclear how many people would mention … the need to make sure they are experiencing low levels of stress,” Charles said.

Using data from two national surveys, the researchers found that participants’ negative emotional responses to daily stressors predicted psychological distress and self-reported mood disorders 10 years later. Minor stress events or daily stressors studied included getting stuck in traffic, fighting with a friend or significant other, and waiting in long lines.

“Stress on a daily basis is detrimental,” said Wesley Moons, an assistant professor in the UC Davis psychology department. “If you’re constantly stressed, you are essentially [deregulating] your physiology so your stress hormones become elevated. Hormones like cortisol will stay elevated for long periods of time which is bad for your system.”

Moons described how stress hormones impact biological function and affect cognition. In instances when the fight or flight response is necessary for survival, stress hormones and neurochemicals help prepare the body. Heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles contract and immunity is increased for a short term period of time.

However, with chronic stress these chemicals can suppress functions not necessary for immediate survival. Eventually your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory and reproductive systems stop working normally.

The effects of stress do not just manifest as imbalanced hormones; there are actual physical changes that occur inside the body as well.

“Laboratory studies [show] that increased levels of cortisol for a long period of time [are] bad for the neural cells in the hippocampus, and the size of the hippocampus will actually get smaller,” said Brian Trainor, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis. “We know from [neuroimaging] that some mental disorders are linked with the [shrinkage] of the hippocampus.”

Trainor emphasizes that most stressors in our daily lives are within our ability to manage ourselves. Things like changing the route you take to work, not cramming for exams and staying organized are all ways to reduce our stress levels.

“When you are faced with stressors you can’t plan for, you have to develop a regulation strategy and regulate your stress.… little things like that will help people reduce their stress levels and avoid these negative outcomes,” Moons said.

There is no single regulation strategy that will work for everyone. People all deal with stress differently, and it is important for individuals to find what works best for them.

“People view stress in more extreme ways, but the truth is people experience stress for [many] reasons … and even these moderate levels of stress can accumulate and have negative consequences,” Moons said.

According to Trainor, there exists a wide range of mental disorders in which stress plays a key role.

“You don’t need a life full of trauma or a stressful job,” said Moons. “If you experience even mild levels of stress, it may be worthwhile to find a way to regulate [it] so you can avoid any potential complications down the road.”

NICOLE NOGA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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