Tag Archives: stress

Our daily commute has a direct impact on our productivity and job satisfaction

Our daily commute can tell a lot about our productivity at work, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

New research at Dartmouth College showcases the importance our commute can have on our workday. The findings show how certain behavior and psychological patterns we exhibit during commuting can be used to accurately predict job performance and employee satisfaction levels throughout the day.

The results are based on a year-long monitoring period of commuting workers prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start of the day

“Your commute predicts your day,” said Andrew Campbell, the Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of computer science at Dartmouth, lead researcher and co-author of the study. “This research demonstrates that mobile sensing is capable of identifying how travel to and from the office affects individual workers.”

Data for the study was recorded through the smartphones and fitness trackers of 275 workers over a one-year monitoring period. The participants’ states were also recorded for 30 minutes before and after commuting. Most of these individuals (around 95%) drove to and from work, the team reports. Participants were provided with Garmin vivoSmart 3 activity tracker and a smartphone-based sensing app.

These devices were used to record a range of factors including the levels of physical activity, phone usage, heart rates, and stress levels. This body of data could be used to accurately predict workers’ productivity and satisfaction, the authors explain. The research could also help us to raise workers’ quality of life and help them be more productive.

“We were able to build machine learning models to accurately predict job performance,” said Subigya Nepal a PhD student at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper. “The key was being able to objectively assess commuting stress along with the physiological reaction to the commuting experience.”

Each worker’s day was assessed using ‘counterproductive work behavior’ and ‘organizational citizenship behavior’, two recognized criteria of job performance. The first is behavior that harms an organization’s overall efficiency, while the latter is beneficial. The baselines for each of these behaviors were set through regular, self-reported questionnaires sent in by participants.

“Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work,” said Pino Audia, a professor of Management and Organizations at the Tuck School of Business, a senior scientist on the study team, and a co-author of the study. “This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines.”

Apart from this, high-performers tended to show more psychological markers of physical fitness and stress resilience. Low-performers showed higher levels of stress before, during, and after the commutes, and tended to use their phone more during commutes.

This aligns well with previous research on the topic, the team explains. Such research found that stress, anxiety, and frustration felt by individuals during their commute can reduce their efficiency at work, increase levels of counterproductive work behavior, and lower their engagement with organizational citizenship behavior. However, the current study is the first to link commuting data directly with workplace performance.

“The insights from this proof-of-concept study demonstrate that this is an important area of research for future of work,” said Campbell, co-director of Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab.

The small percentage of participants who engaged in active commuting — such as walking to work — showcased that such forms of commuting are typically associated with increased productivity during the day. Additionally, the study also found that people tended to spend more time commuting back home than they do going to work in the morning.

In the future, the team hopes that their findings can be used as a basis for new technology aimed at detecting and lowering commuter stress. Such interventions could include an app that offers suggestions for short stops, music, or podcasts aimed at improving a commuter’s emotional state.

The paper “Predicting Job Performance Using Mobile Sensing” has been published in the journal IEEE Pervasive Computing.

Mice can develop neural signs of depression when forced to watch other mice experiencing stress

Depression is a global problem, affecting an ever-growing number of individuals. In a bid to better understand its physiological underpinnings, a team from the Tokyo University of Science has explored how neural deterioration in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, as well as physical and psychological stress, is tied to depression.

Image credits Tibor Janosi Mozes.

There are several theories regarding why and how depression emerges, both from psychological and physiological factors. In regards to the latter, the “neurogenic hypothesis of depression” has garnered a lot of scientific interest. It states that depression can stem from physical degradation in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, degradation which can be incurred by stress.

While the link between physical stress and depression has been investigated in the past, much less is known about the effects of psychological stress. A new study aims to give us a better understanding of this topic, using mice as a model organism.

A grinding toll

“The number of individuals suffering from depression has been on the rise the world over. However, the detailed pathophysiology of depression still remains to be elucidated. So, we decided to focus on the possible mechanism of psychological stress in adult hippocampal neurogenesis, to understand its role in depressive disorders,” says Prof. Akiyoshi Saitoh from Tokyo University of Science, co-lead author of the study.

“We have found out that chronic mental stress affects the neurogenesis of the hippocampal dentate gyrus. Also, we believe that this animal model will play an important role in elucidating the pathophysiology of depression, and in the development of corresponding novel drug.”

For the study, the team exposed mice to “repeated psychological stress” in order to test how this impacts hippocampus degeneration in their brains. The experiment consisted of making the mice experience chronic social defeat stress (cSDS) via their peers — a source of psychological stress for the animals, as they are a highly social species. Chronic social defeat stress is an experimental tool through which stress is induced in a subject (such as a mouse), the ‘naive mouse’ to ‘aggressor’ mice. As part of this research, the mice were made to witness the naive mice, who were participating in the stressful situation.

After this exposure, the team analyzed their brains to measure the level of degradation it produced in key brain areas, as well as noting changes in behavior.

First off, they report that the mice exposed to this repeated source of stress started exhibiting behavioral issues such as social withdrawal, indicative of depression. In their brains, more specifically the dentate gyrus area of the hippocampus, the team recorded a decreased survival rate of new-born neurons compared to those of controls. This area is heavily involved in memory and sensory perception.

Lower new-born neuron survival rates persisted for up to four weeks after the animals were exposed to the stress-inducing scenarios. Chronic treatment with antidepressant fluoxetine was efficient in restoring neuronal survival rates for these mice. Other characteristics, such as cell growth, differentiation, and maturation rates were not impacted by stress in the experimental mice (as compared to controls), the team adds.

The authors link neural degradation in the hippocampus to the emergence of depression through the fact that avoidance behaviors in the experimental mice was “significantly enhanced” 4 weeks after the last stress-inducing exercise, compared to the first day after it. This behavior, they explain, is likely produced by degradation mounting in neurons of the hippocampus following the experience.

Although these findings have not yet been validated in humans, the authors believe that they can form an important part of understanding how depression emerges in the brain even among us. Further work is needed to validate the results and see whether they translate well to humans, however.

The paper “Chronic vicarious social defeat stress attenuates new-born neuronal cell survival in mouse hippocampus” has been published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

The Yerkes–Dodson law, or why you mess up tasks when your crush is watching you

Ability is a curious thing. Even the most qualified among us have felt our skills magically drain away when someone is observing us intently, or feel our voice crack when we need to hold a speech. On the other hand, when something important to us is on the line, we can surprise even ourselves with how well we solve an issue.

Image credits Mohamed Hassan.

Our capabilities and skills don’t actually change dramatically from one moment to the next, so then, what causes these shifts in performance? One possible answer, proposed over one century ago by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, is an empirical ‘law’ that bears their name to this day.

It’s not an actual law, like gravity or taxes, but observational data gathered since it was first formulated does support it. That’s not to say that we’ve proven the Yerkes–Dodson law true, it’s more that we haven’t yet proven it to be untrue, but that’s pretty par for the course when discussing psychology. Still, it’s a very interesting topic, and one which is applicable to all of us, and often, throughout our lives.

So, without any ado, let’s see how arousal and performance interplay during our lives.

The curve

Boiled down to the core, the Yerkes–Dodson law describes the effect different levels of arousal have on our performance. Arousal, in the psychological sense, is the state of your body being alert, activated, ready for action and reaction, or the process of it reaching that state.

The main takeaway from this law is that there is an ideal level of arousal for every task where our performance is maximized. At that point, we’re not too aroused (stressed), which impairs our ability to function, nor are we too relaxed, which would keep us from engaging with the activity in the first place. Balance is the name of the game where performance is concerned.

The best way to understand the Yerkes–Dodson law, and the way it’s generally presented, is in a graph. This graph is usually a single line following a bell curve: like a wave with its crest pointing upwards. The vertical axis (how high the line reaches) indicates performance, while the horizontal axis (left to right) indicates progressively higher levels of arousal.

While this isn’t wrong, and is the most-often cited variation of the graph, it is incomplete. The full graph displays two lines. One represents the relationship between arousal and performance levels in complicated tasks, and the other for simple tasks. This is quite an important distinction to make, as we’ll see going forward. The incomplete graph is often referred to as the Hebbian version of this law.

The original graph showcasing the Yerkes–Dodson law. Image credits Yerkes and Dodson.

The highest point on each of these lines indicates the point at which an individual engaging in either of the two classes of tasks reaches maximum performance. For simple tasks, it tends to rise with arousal, and then plateau. For more complicated tasks, however, performance rises with arousal up until the middle point, after which any increases in arousal levels tend to impair our ability to function.

The duo based this graph on rat experiments they performed in the lab. During these tests, Yerkes and Dodson found that they could motivate the animals to navigate a maze by administering small electrical shocks to them. If these were too light for the rats to actually feel — i.e. the shocks didn’t increase the animals’ level of arousal — they wouldn’t bother doing the thing at all. Up to a point, increasing the intensity of the shocks made the rats first engage with the task, and then go through the maze faster — in other words, it increased their performance steadily.

But if arousal is the state of being alert or ready to act and react, shouldn’t more arousal mean more alertness and ability? Shouldn’t both curves, then, look like the one for simple tasks? Well, it comes down to how alertness is mediated by our bodies and how it, in turn, impacts our bodies.

From apathy to stress

Arousal is a key regulator of our emotions, consciousness, and our ability to actually interact with and process sensory information coming from our environment. It is, in a very real sense, the only thing that allows you to do pretty much anything voluntarily, from getting out of bed in the morning to engaging in sexual activity.

But just like any good regulator, the key here is just how much arousal you’re experiencing.

One of the easiest ways to help you understand the effect of arousal is through the difference between introverted and extroverted people — we’ve all met both kinds in our lives. According to one theory (Eysenck’s theory of arousal), every individual’s brain has a ‘natural frequency’, its own baseline level of activity, or stimulation. For introverted people, it holds, this baseline is higher in intensity than in the brains of extroverted individuals. Due to this difference, these two types will seek out environments that produce opposite effects for their arousal levels. Extroverts, who are naturally under-stimulated, seek situations and activities that actively increase their arousal. Introverts, who are naturally over-stimulated, will seek to avoid those same situations and seek low-arousal environments instead.

If you’ve ever talked with an extroverted friend that’s been cut off from their supply of social stimulation for a while, you’ll know just how desperate they are to get that chatting in with you; maybe even go out for lunch, for a concert, bungee-jumping! At the other end of the scale, you’ve probably also seen how overwhelmed an introvert close to you becomes after they’ve been forced into highly stimulating situations for far too long. With a tired look, and even a cranky demeanor, all they really want is to go home and not talk to anyone for a bit.

Both of these situations showcase how too little arousal or too much can impair our ability to perform. If we take “being an emotionally stable human” as the task, both the extrovert and the introvert do far worse in this scenario than they would in ideal conditions. At the same time, even an extrovert can become overwhelmed, and even introverts can become apathetic, which would also interfere with that task.

It’s an imperfect analogy, but I feel it helps illustrate how too little or too muc arousal can be detrimental to our performance for complicated tasks. Another great example is found in the low arousal theory. According to it, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antisocial personality disorders could be the result of abnormally low baseline levels of arousal in the brain. The effects we can perceive outwardly — difficulty holding focus, compulsive hyperactive behavior, and a propensity for seeking novelty — would, according to this theory, be an effort by the individual to increase their arousal through external stimuli.

So why don’t simple tasks follow the same response pattern to arousal? One framework that attempts to explain this difference is the cue utilization theory. This theory holds that as the internal level of arousal of a person increases, their attention starts becoming narrower. Their brain automatically works to remove irrelevant information (such as environmental cues) from the individual’s conscious perception to help them better focus on the task at hand. If arousal is too low, too much information is allowed past the filter, so we can’t focus. If arousal levels are too high, too little information makes it through, so again, we can’t perform adequately.

Arousal doesn’t influence simple tasks in the same way it does complicated ones for the simple reason that simple tasks are simple. They require much less conscious input from you, and they take much less of your higher executive abilities (such as deduction, problem-solving, or memory) to complete. Drinking water is much easier than calculus — hence, you can drink water adequately even if you’re unbelievably stressed.

You might be surprised by my use of the term ‘stressed’ here. The concepts of arousal and stress are actually very closely linked. What we usually tend to refer to as ‘being stressed’ is a long-term buildup of arousal combined with a lack of an adequate way to release it. Stress, then, forms when your body prepares you to deal with a task such as a perceived threat but it either is so far outside your abilities that it becomes overwhelming, or there simply is no way to address the issue (such as being broke with no income source lined up).

Should you abuse it?

On a personal level, understanding the rough mechanisms highlighted by the Yerkes-Dodson law can be beneficial. Artificially increasing our arousal can spur us to action if we’re being lazy with a task we need to do. Intentionally keeping our arousal under tabs through relaxation exercises can keep us functioning in high-stress situations when our peers start to crack. But it can only help you along, it won’t do the thing for you.

Let’s circle back to what we were discussing in the beginning. Despite calling it a law, the Yerkes-Dodson law is not a law. The authors themselves never offered it as, nor meant it to be viewed as, an absolute truth regarding animal behavior; they simply zapped some rats and put the results in a pretty chart. It gives us a glimpse into a mechanism that is true, but doesn’t aim to show us the whole picture.

If you’re drunker than a sailor, no level of arousal, by itself, is enough to make you drive safely. No amount of arousal will make a malnourished person able to sustain heavy physical activity. Our emotions, belief systems, the cultural landscape we were raised in, our skills and socioeconomic status — these and many others factor into our ability to perform any task, and even our desire to engage productively with tasks in the first place.

The Yerkes-Dodson law is a hotly debated topic in psychology to this day. Perhaps, more than anything else, because it enjoys traction with everyday people and quite a bit of popularity. Still, studies such as this one — which reports that “practitioners should not seek to increase performance through the manipulation of employee stress levels” — have repeatedly highlighted that the law doesn’t translate directly into practice.

Psychology is a complicated field of research, and human psychology likely takes the cake. Understanding that stress has an impact on our performance, and how that relationship looks, can help us achieve success in our own lives. But it’s not the only factor influencing our abilities, or our success. So be mindful of it in your day to day, but please don’t try to stress others around you in an effort to make them more productive. You’ll just end up without any friends.

Psychedelic-like drug could fix the symptoms of stress without giving you hallucinations

Feeling stressed? New research might help, as we’ve identified a substance that can revert stress-induced behavioral deficits and restore neural circuits affected by stress in the brain — in mice, so far.

Image via Pixabay.

The compound tabernanthalog (TBG) is similar in structure to ibogaine, a psychedelic drug. However, it lacks its toxic and hallucinogenic effects and has been found to quickly reverse stress-related issues in mice. A single dose of TBG is enough for the job, the authors add, to address issues such as anxiety and cognitive inflexibility, regrow neuronal connections, and restore neural circuits — all possible effects of stress.

Stress-B-gone

“It was very surprising that a single treatment with a low dose had such dramatic effects within a day,” said corresponding author Yi Zuo, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz.

“I had a hard time believing it even when I saw the initial data.”

TBG was developed in the lab of David Olson at UC Davis, a co-author on the current paper, and was first reported on in 2020. The study focused on its activity against the effects of stress, using a protocol in which lab mice were subjected to mild but unpredictable sources of stress over a period of a few days.

Stress, the team explains, especially sustained over longer periods of time, can lead to increased levels of anxiety, difficulty in processing sensory input, and reduced flexibility in decision-making. In the brain, it can lead to disruptions between neurons and changes in the structure of our neuronal circuitry — which, overall, impacts how well our brain can function on a day-to-day basis.

One dose of TBG, however, had reversed all of these effects in the mice used in this study. The team also performed imaging studies to assess changes in the brains of the mice at the neuronal level.

“This study provides significant insights into neural mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of psychedelic analogs on mental illnesses and paves the way for future investigations to understand their cellular and circuit mechanisms,” adds Zuo.

Psychedelic drugs have been receiving a lot of attention lately as they might be useful in treating addiction, depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder. However, their hallucinogenic effects can be quite impairing for some patients and remain a point of concern.

Ibogaine is one such compound that showed promise in the treatment of addiction. It does, however, also cause heart arrhythmia and is a very strong hallucinogenic substance. TBG is chemically and biochemically similar to Ibogaine, but seems to lack its toxic and hallucinogenic effects in mice. The compound has not yet been tested on humans, so we can’t be sure, but it doesn’t induce head-twitching behaviors in mice after administration, as known hallucinogens do.

Previous research on mice has shown that TBG can act as an antidepressant and can reduce addictive behavior. The current study was meant to expand on these initial findings by evaluating its potential in the treatment of stress and its symptoms.

Initial studies of TBG found that it had antidepressant effects and reduced addictive behaviors in rodents. The new study was initiated by co-first author Michelle Tjia, then a graduate student in Zuo’s lab studying the effects of stress. After Tjia left for a postdoctoral position, co-first author Ju Lu, a project scientist in the lab, led additional studies. The researchers conducted a range of tests to evaluate behavioral responses to stress and the effects of treatment with TBG.

The paper “An analog of psychedelics restores functional neural circuits disrupted by unpredictable stress” has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

New, wearable cortisol sensor can help warn us of incoming burnout or depression

It’s no secret that life can get rough. Those who have to contend with that for too long can start feeling overwhelmed — burned out by the stress. Now, a team of researchers proposes a new approach through which we can quantify how much stress someone is under, and for how long. They hope that the new wearable device can help prevent burnout, and let us know when someone is most in need of support or a good old fashioned break from the stress.

Image via Pixabay.

The new device was designed by a team of engineers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Nanoelectronic Devices Laboratory (Nanolab) and Xsensio, a Swiss-based biotech company. It takes the shape of a wearable sensor that measures the levels of stress hormone cortisol in a person’s sweat. This figure can then be used to gauge the levels of cortisol in the blood.

The sensor is placed directly on the skin and provides continuous readings of this hormone’s levels in their sweat.

Skin-deep stress

“Cortisol can be secreted on impulse — you feel fine and suddenly something happens that puts you under stress, and your body starts producing more of the hormone,” says Adrian Ionescu, head of Nanolab.

“But in people who suffer from stress-related diseases, this circadian rhythm is completely thrown off. If the body makes too much or not enough cortisol, that can seriously damage an individual’s health, potentially leading to obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression or burnout.”

Cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol in our body’s adrenal glands — these sit right on top of your kidneys. How much of it is secreted is in turn controlled by the pituitary gland in our brains through the use of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

It’s easy to read “stress hormone” and immediately assume cortisol is a bad guy, but that’s simply not true. As we’ve seen previously, stress is a completely natural and deeply useful response; the issue with it today is that we’re feeling much more stress than we would in our natural environment. In other words, stress isn’t the issue — too much stress, is.

In our day-to-day, cortisol has some very important functions, including keeping our metabolism, blood sugar, and blood pressure in check. It’s also deeply involved in other cardiovascular functions and the workings of the immune system. In a stressful situation, be it something life-threatening or a simple annoyance, cortisol is flooded into the body to make us ready for our ‘fight or flight’. This mostly means prepping up our brain, muscles, and heart for intense activity and possible injury.

Still, cortisol levels in the blood ebb and flow naturally throughout the day, following our circadian rhythm, to keep us functional or asleep as needed. It generally peaks between 6 am and 8 am to rouse us from sleep and then decreases gradually.

Since cortisol is such a good marker for how stressed we feel and how stressed our body actually is, it’s often used as a gold standard to gauge stress. To do that however you need a blood sample, and those aren’t something you can take just anywhere throughout your day.

That’s why the team designed a wearable sensor to measure how much cortisol an individual excretes through their skin. It contains a transistor and a graphene electrode, which the authors explain has very high sensitivity and can detect even low levels of the hormone. Aptamers, short fragments of single-stranded DNA or RNA that can bind to specific compounds, are tied to this graphene electrode, allowing it to interact with the cortisol molecule. Since the aptamers used naturally contain a negative charge, they will be electrostatically attracted to the cortisol molecule and release a charge as they bind together.

The more such molecules are present, the stronger the overall charge becomes. This allows for an accurate and direct measurement of its levels in sweat. The authors explain that this is the first device intended to continuously monitor cortisol levels throughout the circadian cycle (i.e. throughout the day).

“That’s the key advantage and innovative feature of our device. Because it can be worn, scientists can collect quantitative, objective data on certain stress-related diseases. And they can do so in a non-invasive, precise and instantaneous manner over the full range of cortisol concentrations in human sweat,” adds Ionescu.

They tested the device in the lab and found it reliable and efficient; the next step is to now make it available for healthcare workers or researchers. They’ve set up a bridge project with Prof. Nelly Pitteloud, chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), where the device will be tested for continuous use in a real-life hospital setting. They intend to run the test using healthy individuals as well as patients with Cushing’s syndrome (who produce too much cortisol), Addison’s disease (too little cortisol), and stress-related obesity.

As far as the psychological ramifications of stress, the team explains that they are still “assessed based only on patients’ perceptions and states of mind, which are often subjective”. A system such as this patch can help us determine quite reliably how much cortisol is running through their system, which can be used to gauge those at risk of depression or burnout. If nothing else, it will help them support their claims with cold-hard figures.

The paper “Extended gate field-effect-transistor for sensing cortisol stress hormone” has been published in the journal Communications Materials.

Stress, lack of sleep might be contributing to concussion-like symptoms

Lack of sleep and stress can lead to symptoms like those of post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a new paper reports. While it found that between 11% and 27% of the student athletes questioned had such symptoms, the overall percentage is likely higher in the general population due to lower overall fitness levels.

Image via Pixabay.

The findings suggest that a lot of us might unknowingly be bumbling our way through life with concussion-like symptoms, which can’t be good for us. The paper adds that the most reliable predictors of PCS-like symptoms were lack of sleep, pre-existing mental health problems, and stress. All in all, the authors say these findings suggest we need a more individualized treatment approach for athletes recovering from brain injury. It probably also means we should all get more sleep.

Hit in the head

“The numbers were high, and were consistent with previous research in this area, but it is quite shocking,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“These are elite athletes who are physically fit, and they are experiencing that many symptoms commonly reported following a concussion. So looking across the general population, they’d probably have even more.”

The participants were healthy college athletes (with no recent history of concussions at the time of the study) from four U.S. military service academies and students who competed in NCAA sports at 26 U.S. higher education institutions. The study was conducted by the Concussion Assessment, Research, and Education (CARE) Consortium.

Between 11% and 27% of 31,000 participants reported combinations of symptoms that meet the official definition of post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Between 50% and 75% further reported one or more symptoms commonly seen in post-concussion individuals, including fatigue or low energy and drowsiness.

Now, the symptoms by themselves aren’t conclusive proof of anything — several things can cause them. Student athlete post-concussion care aims to determine those symptoms caused by injury through a variety of means, including knowing the medical history and baseline symptom status of each individual.

“When a patient comes into a clinic and they are a month or more out from their most recent concussion, we need to know what symptoms they were experiencing before their concussion to know if their symptoms are attributable to their concussion or something else. Then we can start treating the concussion-related symptoms to hopefully help people recover more quickly,” Caccese said.

Post-concussion syndrome is a persistent condition following a concussion with symptoms ranging from persistent headaches, dizziness, and fatigue to anxiety, insomnia, and loss of concentration and memory. Although we know it’s associated with concussion, we don’t understand why these symptoms appear.

The research was aimed at bettering our knowledge of concussion effects and recovery among student athletes at colleges, universities, and military service academies. But the findings may be more broadly applicable than the team hoped.

Statistical analyses of the data showed that some of the factors in participants’ medical histories were also more likely to be associated with reported symptoms indicative of PCS. Among military cadets, 17.8% of men and 27.6% of women reported symptom groups that met PCS criteria. Among NCAA athletes, 11.4% of men and 20% of women reported the same.

Sleep problems, particularly getting insufficient sleep the night before the trial, and psychiatric disorders were the most reliable predictors of these symptoms. A history of migraines also contributed to symptoms that met PCS criteria. For cadets, being a first-year student and experiencing academic difficulties were tied to an increased chance of meeting PCS criteria, while for NCAA athletes history of ADHD or depression did the same.

One limiting factor of the study is that it relied on self-reported data, which is notoriously unreliable as it’s subjective. At the same time, some symptoms may be more closely tied to a concussion while others could be due to a variety of causes.

“Perhaps we can create a battery of symptoms more specific to concussion,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“This hopefully not only shows clinicians that we need to consider how people would have presented before injury, but also provides some normative data so they can interpret other patients’ data. We really don’t know a lot about why people have persistent symptoms, and it seems to be very variable. So we’re trying to understand this better to help predict who will have a prolonged recovery, and who will not.”

The paper “Factors Associated with Symptom Reporting in U.S. Service Academy Cadets and NCAA Student Athletes without Concussion: Findings from the CARE Consortium” has been published in the journal Sports Medicine.

Short, 10-minute periods of massage or rest can help ease stress

Ten minutes of rest, relaxation, or massage is enough to take the edge off of stress, a new paper reports.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany report that just a few minutes of downtime per day are enough to boost our mental and physical wellbeing. They explain that participants in their study showed higher levels of psychological and physiological relaxation after a ten-minute long massage, or simple rest (to a lesser degree than the massage).

This is the first evidence that short-term approaches can significantly reduce stress, the team concludes.

Good things in small doses

“To get a better handle on the negative effects of stress, we need to understand its opposite — relaxation,” says Jens Pruessner, a Professor at the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz.

“Relaxation therapies show great promise as a holistic way to treat stress, but more systematic scientific appraisal of these methods is needed.”

Stress is a build-up of tension caused by feeling overwhelmed or just not up to the challenges we’re presented with. Although all of us experience it throughout our lives, the debate on whether stress is ‘natural’ or the product of modern society is still up for debate. What everyone can agree on, however, is that stress isn’t pleasant — or healthy.

Our bodies do have mechanisms in place to handle stress during trying times so it doesn’t impact our performance when we need it most. These mechanisms are governed by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the part of our nervous system that handles automatic tasks including digestion or breathing. We know massages are relaxing, the team explains, but not whether they have a direct effect on the PNS and whether they can be the cornerstone of treatments against stress-related conditions.

For the study, the team developed a new way to test whether physical touch (in the form of a ten-minute massage) can help people relax physically and mentally. They used a head-and-neck massage designed to stimulate the PNS through the vagal nerve, and a neck-and-shoulder massage using soft strokes. The second type was meant to test whether physical touch alone, without the stimulation of any particular nerve bundles, can be relaxing. A control group was asked to sit quietly at a table to gauge the effect of rest without tactile stimulation.

Relaxation was gauged by monitoring the participants’ heart rate and by asking them to rate how relaxed or stressed they felt.

The massages were effective for both psychological and physiological relaxation, the team notes. All participants in the experimental groups reported feeling more relaxed and less stressed than before the experiment. Participants in all groups showed increases in heart rate variability, which signifies an increase in relaxation through the PNS even just from resting alone, the authors explain.

While the intensity of the massage didn’t make a difference, and all types helped promote relaxation, they were more effective than resting alone.

“We are very encouraged by the findings that short periods of dis-engagement are enough to relax not just the mind but also the body,” says Maria Meier, a doctoral student at Konstanz and first author of the study.

“You don’t need a professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for ten minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”

Going forward, the team plans to test whether other short interventions such as breathing exercises or meditation have a similar effect on our levels of stress.

The paper “Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Trauma may cause cognitive decline in adults

Credit: Pixabay.

Trauma suffered both in childhood and adulthood may lead to significant cognitive decline later in life, according to a new study that highlights the importance of therapy and other interventions in order to stave off mental health problems.

“We found that the more adverse events experienced, such as your parents’ divorce or a parent dying, the greater the cognitive decline,” said Margie Lachman, professor of psychology at Brandeis University and co-author of the new study.

It’s no secret that traumatic stress can provoke long-lasting changes in key brain areas involved in stress response, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

Previously, neuroscientists found that patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had smaller hippocampal and anterior cingulate volumes, increased amygdala function, and decreased medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate function. In addition, patients with PTSD show increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress.

In terms of behavior and symptoms, PTSD is strongly associated with disruptions in one’s ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships and a low tolerance for uncertainty and adversity.

In their new study, Lachman and graduate student Kristin Lynch investigated potential associations between trauma and cognition.

The researchers combed through the Midlife Development in the U.S. (MIDUS) study, a national longitudinal study of health and well-being in adulthood, which involved 2,500 adults, ages 28 to 84.

The participants had to complete a questionnaire that listed 12 potentially traumatic events and investigated how these events negatively affected them. Examples of potentially traumatic events include divorce or death of a parent during childhood, emotional or physical abuse, parental alcohol or drug addiction, military combat experience, and losing a home to fire, flood, or natural disaster.

Each subject also had to complete tests that assessed their cognitive abilities in two key areas: executive functioning (focusing attention, planning, problem-solving, and multitasking) and episodic memory (remembering recently learned information).

The cognitive test results were compared to those from participants who claimed they hadn’t experienced traumatic events.

Not surprisingly, those who said they experienced trauma in the past exhibited a greater decline in both executive functioning and episodic memory.

The researchers also found that exposure to trauma later in life led to a greater decline in executive functioning than those who suffered from childhood trauma. There were no significant differences in episodic memory decline between those who experienced trauma earlier or later in life.

According to the researchers, trauma may lead to impaired cognitive performance due to the effects of stress and depression. Trauma is also linked to metabolic disease, inflammation, and disruption of the body’s immune system, which are also known to harm the brain’s performance.

The researchers stress that the effects of trauma on the brain vary on a person-to-person basis and for some they can be quite subtle. “It might not feel like there’s an effect on your day-to-day functioning,” Lynch said.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

What stress is, how it affects us, and how to handle it

Stress has many definitions, but it most usually refers to feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope with pressures in our lives. Rest assured, stress is a normal part of being alive. We all feel it to some degree in these scary, uncertain times.

Image via Pixabay.

Stress itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s our response to events that require us to change and adapt to threats or demands. It helps spur us to action and to overcome such moments in any area of our lives including family, work, hobbies, or education.

The negative effects, those we think of when saying “I’ve just been under a lot of stress lately”, stem from a build-up of this tension. When we feel that we’re not up to the challenges in our lives, or when we go too long without resting and relaxing, stress becomes chronic. This can have negative effects on our mood, performance, decision-making, and eventually on our health.

Why is stress a thing?

Stress is the product of our minds working in concert with our bodies to keep us safe. Its roots are firmly placed in the fight-or-flight response. This response is housed in our ‘lizard brain‘, meant to keep us alive in the face of danger, and shared among all vertebrates.

Stress happens in response to internal and external stimuli that place a demand upon us, either mentally or physically. It is a neutral, non-specific response (it happens for a lot of reasons and doesn’t carry any emotional charge). What it does vary in, based on the stressor, is intensity. The context shapes our emotional reaction to it.

For example, finding you’re all out of gum is a weak, negative stressor. Taking a ride on a roller coaster is a huge stressor, but a positive one (because you’re enjoying it, hopefully).

We seek out situations of controlled danger because danger can be exciting.
Image via Pixabay.

A lot of people will describe feeling ‘pumped up’ after such a ride, which is the effect of adrenaline. The release of adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is closely tied to the fight-or-flight response — as are many other hormones such as cortisol, the stress hormone. They prime our body for either fighting off or running away from a threat by heightening physical performance, activating our immune systems (in case we get wounded), and interfering with processes that aren’t needed in a fight, such as digestion.

Boiled down, this response is our body’s go-to emergency mode when we’re threatened. It’s good at what it does, but it was meant to work in a savanna where “threatened” meant there was a lion or somebody with a sharp rock looking at you. Deadlines, lay-offs, mortgages still register as threats to our brains, but we can neither run from nor smack them, sadly, so the same response stays constant, depletes our bodies, and we become stressed.

As a general guideline, psychologists distinguish four classes of stressors: crises (such as a pandemic), major life events (getting wed, a relative dying), daily annoyances (traffic, work), and ambient stressors (pollution, climate change, crowding).

Eustress and distress

Psychologists sometimes make a distinction between eustress (‘good stress’) and distress (‘bad stress’). Stress, as we’ve seen, takes on certain emotional charges depending on the context and our reaction to it.

‘Eustress’ is an umbrella term that denotes healthy levels of positive stress which give rise to emotions such as hope, excitement, fulfillment, and being energized. It’s most commonly produced by events or demands that are outside our current zone of comfort but are still within our means to achieve. Feeling challenged and motivated to see such a task through is in no small part the product of stress.

‘Distress’, on the other hand, refers to stress caused by conditions that are far from our control or ability to rectify. It is usually characterized by prolonged periods of stress which becomes chronic, and almost always leads to maladaptive behavior (substance abuse, social retreat, irritability, aggressiveness) as a means to cope. People under distress will start experiencing problems sleeping, focusing, working, and eventually will see their health worsen.

Do we need it?

In many ways, stress impacts our performance similarly to arousal as described by the Yerkes-Dodson law. The right amount can keep us running merrily at peak performance; too much and we’re a mess. Too little arousal means that our performance suffers just as it does on the other end of the spectrum.

File:HebbianYerkesDodson.svg
Yerkes Dodson curve showing the impact of arousal on simple tasks.
Image via Wikimedia.

Stress plays a similar function to arousal. While they’re different concepts, there’s a lot of overlap between them, and they’re both linked in our bodies alongside sensations of anxiety. Stress is our initial response to events in our bodies or the environment; it’s the kick that jump-starts our response. It generally leads to arousal (which basically means ‘activation’ of our bodies and minds). Anxiety, a negative emotional state associated with feelings of worry or apprehension, is our bodies’ natural reaction to stress. Too much stress (i.e. of us being or coming close to being overwhelmed by what’s required of us) will lead to a build-up of anxiety that makes us avoid dealing with a certain task or event.

So, sadly, we can’t just do away with stress — we need it in order to function properly. But too much stress can impair our work by interfering with attention, muscle coordination and contraction, and other bodily processes.

As we’ve seen previously, one of the elements of stress involves the release of hormones that alter bodily processes (among others, making energy reserves quickly available for our muscles and organs). Spending too much time in a state of stress, then, will deplete such resources, and we’ll find ourselves running on an empty tank (which hurts our health).

How to handle stress

When dealing with stress, management is key. Keeping an eye on your stress level, and pushing it down when it becomes overwhelming, can lead to better health, productivity, and enjoyment of life.

Chronic stress keeps our fight-or-flight response always on. The hormonal changes this causes can lead to circulatory issues (due to high levels of adrenaline damaging blood vessels), heart attacks, or strokes. High levels of cortisol over long periods of time lead to issues with metabolism and energy management, i.e. it can make us eat more and fatten up.

Some of the most common signs that you’re under a lot of stress include overeating or not eating, problems sleeping, rapid weight gain (or loss in some cases), irritability, trouble concentrating, a retreat from social activities or hobbies. Some harder-to-spot ones include higher levels of anxiety, random pains and aches, issues with digestion, with memory, a drop in libido and sexual enjoyment, even autoimmune diseases.

Managing stress, unsurprisingly, involves either putting the body at ease, or giving it an outlet to channel this tension through. One useful relaxation exercise you can do is to sit in a comfortable position, breathe regularly and deeply, take a few moments to experience and enjoy what your senses are telling you, and imagine tranquil, pleasant, nice scenes or events. Physical exercise can give your body a way to expend stress (it’s the “fight or flight” mechanism, and you’re doing just that). If you just can’t fit any of those into your schedule, talking to a friend or pretty much anyone who will listen about your issues can help lower your levels of stress by giving you emotional support.

Wherever stress stems from in your life, keep in mind that our feelings are not an accurate representation of reality. They’re a product of millions of years of evolution and biochemical tweaking whose sole purpose is to keep you from dying — and if they have to ruin your mood to do so, they will. But you don’t have to bear it alone, and you don’t have to listen to it more than necessary. Take some time every day to relax, unwind, and take care of your mental health, no matter how hopeless things may seem. It’s darkest at midnight, but that’s also when things start getting brighter.

Stress greys our hair out, and the process is reversible within a ‘relatively short’ timeframe

A new study reports that stress does indeed gray out your hair. The good news, however, is that it will also revert to its original color after the stress is removed.

Image in public domain.

While the paper hasn’t yet been published in a scientific journal, and as such has not yet been peer-reviewed — so take the findings with a grain of salt.

Grayed out

Folk wisdom has held that stress can lead to hairs turning gray. But what we’ve always known intuitively, and through our grandmothers’ rants, seems to be rooted in scientific fact, according to a new study.

The team aimed to investigate how melanin and other proteins in strands of hair interact to create its natural color. They collected around 400 samples of hair from various areas of the bodies of 14 volunteers and analyzed them using an imaging technique designed to detect pigment levels in different parts of the strands.

Some of the hairs thus investigated were gray at the tips rather than the roots, the team explained. Given that strands of hair grow from the root up, this suggests that the hair was gray to begin with but returned to its natural colors at a later date.

Following this realization, the authors called the participants back to answer some questions. First, they calculated when the hairs turned grey and how long had passed since they reverted to their natural color (because hair grows at a constant rate). Then, they asked the volunteers if they had experienced any stressful events around that time, finding several matches.

For one person, the time when their hair returned to its natural color coincided with vacation, suggesting that it was a drop in stress levels that promoted this shift. They do note, however, that only hair that turned grey due to stress will revert to its colors when mental state improves. However, they also explain that this shift back only seems to occur if the drop in stress occurs relatively soon after the hair turned grey.

As I’ve already mentioned, the study has not been peer-reviewed yet, so we don’t yet know the validity of these findings. But they do align well with folk wisdom and anecdotal evidence, so they could hold a kernel of truth.

The study “Human Hair Graying is Naturally Reversible and Linked to Stress” has been published in the pre-print journal bioRxiv.

Stress causes physical changes in the brains of mice, and it may help us design medicine to fight it

New research at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center points the way to a potential treatment against stress.

Image credits Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke.

The team shows that stress can physically alter the structures of mouse brains, with long-lasting effects. They also identify a molecular pathway that could be used to prevent or reverse such changes.

Out-stressing

“Stress alters brain function and produces lasting changes in human behavior and physiology. The experience of traumatic events can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, and drug addiction,” explains Si-Qiong June Liu, MD, PhD, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at LSU and lead author of the paper.

“Investigation of the neurobiology of stress can reveal how stress affects neuronal connections and hence brain function. This knowledge is necessary for developing strategies to prevent or treat these common stress-related neurological disorders.”

The team found that, for mice, experiencing even a single stressful event was enough to cause quick, long-lasting changes in the structure of astrocytes, brain cells that help feed neurons and maintain synaptic function. Such events cause the outer branches of these cells to shrink away from synapses (the contact spaces between neurons used to transmit impulses via chemical messengers).

Synapses perform the same role in our brains as transistors do in computers — they give us our processing power. And, without astrocytes, they can become clogged with waste ions.

During a stressful event, the team explains, the stress hormone norepinephrine suppresses a molecular pathway that normally produces a protein, GluA1. This protein is essential in allowing nerve cells and astrocytes to communicate with each other.

“Stress affects the structure and function of both neurons and astrocytes,” adds Dr. Liu. “Because astrocytes can directly modulate synaptic transmission and are critically involved in stress-related behavior, preventing or reversing the stress-induced change in astrocytes is a potential way to treat stress-related neurological disorders.”

They explain that the pathway they identified should, in theory, be targeted with medicine to prevent or even potentially reverse stress-induced changes.

For now, the findings only apply to mice. But many signaling pathways are conserved throughout evolution, the team notes. The molecular pathways that lead to astrocyte structural remodeling and suppression of GluA1 production may, therefore, also occur in humans who experience a stressful event — and they could hold the key to fighting stress.

The paper “. Emotional stress induces structural plasticity in Bergmann glial cells via an AC5-CPEB3-GluA1 pathway” has been published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Student and stressed? Take 10 minutes and go to the park, a study suggests

Going to university can be more than stressful for many, especially when exams and deadlines start to pile up.

Understandably, many students deal with those high levels of stress.

Image credits: Lukasz Szmigiel.

According to a group of researchers, taking as few as 10 minutes in any natural setting every day can really make a difference for most of the students.

Up to 80% of the people studying in higher education said to have experienced stress or anxiety, according to a study by Uni Health in the UK, while a survey by NUS from 2016 said nine in 10 students experienced stress.

An interdisciplinary team from Cornell University reviewed previous studies to see what effects nature has on the mental health of college students.

They wanted to discover what was the right amount of time students should spend outside and what sort of activities they should carry out when they were in nature.

Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program, and her team discovered that the best range of time to spend in natural areas was of 10 to 50 minutes and that this improved the mood, focus and physiological markers of the students.

Image credits: Wikipedia Commons

“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in — we’re talking 10 minutes outside in a space with nature,” said Meredith in a press release. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”

Once outside, it’s enough with just sitting or walking to benefit from the positive effects of spending time in nature, according to the researchers. They focused their study on those two activities in order to quantify nature doses in just minutes.

Students in universities with a big and green campus will probably have plenty of places to spend their daily 10 minutes. While it might be trickier for urban universities, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. They can add green elements to build space and get the same results, the study argued.

“This is an opportunity to challenge our thinking around what nature can be,” says Meredith. “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”

The researchers decided to focus on this area of study as a way to encourage students to spend time in nature to deal with their stress or anxiety and gain positive physical and mental health outcomes. They hope that more universities will consider this, making spending time in nature a daily habit for their students.

“This nature dose is an upstream ‘prevention’ approach to, hopefully, reduce the number of people getting to the point where a pharmacological approach becomes necessary,” Donald Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science and author of the study, said.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Bar neon sign.

Ignoring distractions or temptation is harder when you’re tired, stressed, or trying to remember something

Stress, tiredness, and general cognitive strain make it much harder for us to ignore signals in the environment for something rewarding — such as bright neon signs for fast food joints.

Bar neon sign.

Neon lights and ads are such tempting cues.
Image via Pixabay.

We all have impulses we’d like to have a better handle on. Some of you might be trying to diet, quit smoking, or kick some other habit; good luck. New research says that tiredness, stress, or any other drain on your mental resources can make it harder for you to resist tempting cues and thus make good on your decision. The team says that trying to hold information in our memory also produces this effect, the first time this link has been demonstrated.

Self-control

“We knew already that participants find it hard to ignore cues that signal a large reward,” says study lead Dr. Poppy Watson at UNSW.

“We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore.”

Researchers refer to the cognitive processes that allow us to pay attention, organize our life, focus, or regulate our emotions as ‘executive control’. It wasn’t yet clear whether our ability or inability to ignore reward cues (i.e. temptation) was related to executive control or a separate ability, but the present research suggests that the former is true: executive control processes are employed to keep us from distractions or temptations. However, the findings also show that these resources are limited.

“Now that we have evidence that executive control processes are playing an important role in suppressing attention towards unwanted signals of reward, we can begin to look at the possibility of strengthening executive control as a possible treatment avenue for situations like addiction,” says Dr. Watson.

For the study, the team had participants look at a screen on which various shapes — including a colorful circle — were being displayed. Their task was to locate and look at a diamond shape on the screen, and if successful, they’d be given money. However, if they looked at the colored circle — which played the part of the distraction/temptation — they wouldn’t receive money. To make things even harder, participants were told that the presence of a blue circle on-screen meant that they’d be paid more if they successfully completed the diamond task than if an orange circle was shown.

The team tracked where each participant was looking using eye-tracking technology. The team ran a low-memory load and a high-memory load version of the experiment. In the high-memory load version, the participants were also asked to memorize a sequence of numbers while performing the larger task. This set-up was used to further draw from the participants’ cognitive resources and to see how this impacted their ability to perform the diamond task.

Hot Dogs.

Image via Pixabay.

“Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward — the coloured circles — even though they were paid to try and ignore them,” Dr. Watson says.

“Crucially, the circles became harder to ignore when people were asked to also memorize numbers: under high memory load, participants looked at the coloured circle associated with the high reward around 50% of the time, even though this was entirely counterproductive.”

The findings suggest that people need access to either full or at least a sizeable chunk of their cognitive control processes to successfully block distractions or temptations from the environment. This mechanism, ironically, seems to make it harder to ignore cues regarding habits or behaviors you want to change — because you’re paying attention to changing them specifically. This might also explain why people find it harder to focus on dieting or beating an addiction if they are under a lot of stress.

“There’s this strong known link between where your attention is and what you eventually do, so if you find it hard to focus your attention away from reward cues, it’s even harder to act accordingly,” says Dr. Watson. “Constant worrying or stress is the equivalent to the high-memory load scenario of our experiment, impacting on people’s ability to use their executive control resources in a way that’s helping them manage unwanted cues in the environment.”

The team wants to see if executive control can be strengthened and if that can be used in the context of drug rehabilitation.

The paper “Capture and Control: Working Memory Modulates Attentional Capture by Reward-Related Stimuli” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Credit: Pixabay.

Scientists have a closer look at a vaccine for stress

A bacterium that lives in the dirt has been used to develop a vaccine that lowers the response to stress in mice. In the future, a similar drug injected into humans might protect us against PTSD-like symptoms, just like vaccines today protect you against the flu. Now, a new study has uncovered the molecular mechanisms that enable this dampening response, bringing us closer to a drug that might protect humans against stress.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Last year, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, led by Cristopher Lowry, found that exposure to a soil-based bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae made mice less reactful to stressful situations. The mouse models also had lower levels of stress-induced proteins and showed less anxious behaviors when exposed to stress just eight days after the last injection, according to the 2008 study.

These findings are extremely appealing. PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic event or frightening experiences such as sexual assault, war, natural disaster, accidents or the threat of death to oneself or a loved one. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a long-lasting consequence of incredibly traumatic events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. About 1 in 30 Americans will develop PTSD during their lifetimes, and countless others are affected by depression, which is another stress-related psychiatric disorder.

“We envision use of immunizations with heat-killed mycobacteria for treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders, in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy and treatment as usual,” Lowry said during a statement in 2018.

Now, a new study, Lowry and colleagues have revisited the topic — this time, the researchers looked for the molecular mechanisms that might explain the observed effect. In their new study, the team identified and isolated a lipid in the bacterium, called 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid, that apparently tunes down the flight-or-fight response in mammals.

“We knew it worked, but we didn’t know why,” said Lowry. “This new paper helps clarify that.”

The lipid binds to receptors inside immune cells, blocking certain chemicals from causing inflammation. In the lab, the researchers also synthesized this lipid. When it was used to coat cells, the researchers found that these cells were resistant to the stimulation of an inflammatory response. So, the vaccine offered protection against stress-induced inflammation and altered the animals’ behavior similarly to antidepressants.

“We think there is a special sauce driving the protective effects in this bacterium, and this fat is one of the main ingredients in that special sauce,” said Lowry, who is an Integrative Physiology Professor.

Christopher Lowry. Credit: CU Boulder.

Christopher Lowry. Credit: CU Boulder.

Previously, Lowry published numerous studies that correlated healthy bacteria with mental health. One study showed that children raised in rural areas, where they were surrounded by farm animals and dust, grew up to have a more resilient immune system and were at lower risk of mental illness compared to pet-free city dwellers.

Lowry has long envisioned developing a “stress vaccine” from M. vaccae, which could be given to first responders, soldiers and others in high-stress jobs to help them fend off the psychological damage of stress.

“This is a huge step forward for us because it identifies an active component of the bacteria and the receptor for this active component in the host,” he said.

This is just the beginning. In the future, who knows what other kinds of beneficial bacteria scientists might be able to uncover.

“This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils,” Lowry said. “We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.”

The findings were reported in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Dogs mirror owners’ stress levels, new study says

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Many people work stressful jobs but at least some get to come back home to a loving canine. However, according to a new study, we might want to be more careful with our mood in front of our beloved pets. The study found that dogs can not only feel that we are stressed, but it also causes them to feel stressed. The researchers say that this is the first time we’ve seen a long-term synchronization in stress levels between two different species.

The study was performed by Swedish researchers at Linköping University who recruited 25 border collies, 33 Shetland sheepdogs, and their human female owners. In order to measure stress in both dogs and humans, the researchers used markers found in strands of hair. Cortisol, the stress hormone, accumulates over time in growing hair, so each shaft becomes a biological record of stress — not all that different from measuring droughts in tree rings or temperature in ice cores.

Researchers focused on shorter strands of hair that corresponded to growth in the winter and summer of 2017 and 2018. They found that human and dog cortisol levels closely matched and held through the seasons, although dogs felt slightly more stressed during the winter.

Half of the dogs were enrolled in regular training and competitions, while the other half were regular pets. Competing dogs more closely mirrored the stress levels of their owners, presumably because the owners and their pets formed stronger bonds.

Remarkably, whether the dog had a garden to play in, the number of hours an owner worked, and whether the dog lived with other canines had little influence on cortisol level. This means that the environment has less influence on a dog’s stress than the owners themselves. Female dogs showed a higher cortisol concentration than male dogs. Previous studies showed that in most species, females show a higher emotional responsivity, which may explain the stronger association for cortisol levels between human owners and female dogs.

Owners who had a high score for neuroticism — a personality trait involving a long-term tendency to be in a negative or anxious emotional state — had dogs with the lowest hair cortisol levels. This may be explained by the fact that neurotic owners might seek more comfort from their pets, thereby giving them more attention, hugs, and treats.

For many dog owners, these findings shouldn’t come as a shocking surprise. Dogs are known to be highly affected by the owners’ moods, especially the crummy kind. And at the end of the day, you shouldn’t feel too guilty either. The researchers say that it’s still better for you and your dog to stay together even if you pass on the stress.

“Our results show that long-term stress hormone levels were synchronized between dogs and humans, two different species sharing everyday life. This could not be explained by either physical activity or by the amount of training. Since the personality of the owners was significantly related to the HCC of their dogs, we suggest that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs. To our knowledge, this is the first study to show interspecies synchronization of long-term stress,” the authors concluded in the journal Scientific Reports

Fuel meter.

Duo of engineers are working on a kit to test your stress levels at home

Feeling stressed? A new test kit can help you see just how stressed you are — and whether you should seek help with handling it.

Fuel meter.

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have developed a new test that can measure common stress hormones in sweat, blood, urine, or saliva. The test was designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible, and the team hopes to further develop it for use at home.

Spotting stress 101

“Stress harms us in so many ways. And it sneaks up on you. You don’t know how devastating a short or long duration of stress can be,” says UC graduate Prajokta Ray, the study’s first author.

“So many physical ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure and neurological or psychological disorders are attributed to stress the patient has gone through. That’s what interested me.”

Andrew Steckl, an Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of electrical engineering in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and the other co-author of the paper, says their test was born from the desire to make “something that’s simple and easy to interpret.” Steckl has personal experience helping his father handle medical care, who often needed help getting “to the lab or doctor to have tests done to adjust his medication.” Having an easy-to-use stress test that they could run at home to determine whether they needed to make the trip would have saved them both a lot of time and effort, not to mention helping them worry less.

Steckl has a background in biosensors, and he drew upon that expertise to create the very product he lacked — and needed — when caring for his father. The result isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough to give you a rough idea of your state of stress and to help you determine whether or not you should see a specialist.

The technology, in its current state, involves blasting a sample of fluid (sweat, blood, urine, or saliva) with UV light, which the can then be read to determine the concentration of stress hormones and biomarkers it contains (a technique known as UV spectroscopy). The team says it “primarily focused” on cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and neuropeptide Y for now. The concentrations of each of these compounds vary across different bodily fluids, but the team reports that so far, they’ve been able to reliably measure them in all samples.

“This [test] doesn’t replace laboratory tests, but it could tell patients more or less where they are,” he explains. “This may not give you all the information, but it tells you whether you need a professional who can take over.”

“It measures not just one biomarker but multiple biomarkers. And it can be applied to different bodily fluids. That’s what’s unique,” he adds.

The project was, in part, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, as stress levels are a particular area of interest for the military. US armed forces are engaged in active research regarding acute stress in personnel that operate at the fringes of human resistance, such as fighter pilots.

“Pilots are placed under enormous stress during missions. The ground controller would like to know when the pilot is reaching the end of his or her ability to control the mission properly and pull them out before a catastrophic ending,” Steckl said.

The resulting device, however, needn’t be only used by the military — Steckl’s lab is currently working through commercial applications for the test. It’s not going to “replace a full-panel laboratory blood test,” he says, but it would be very useful as a quick indicator to let patients know how much their medical state has changed.

The paper “Label-Free Optical Detection of Multiple Biomarkers in Sweat, Plasma, Urine, and Saliva” has been published in the journal ACS Sensors.

Do stress balls really work?

You’ve probably seen some those semi-soft foam balls adorning virtually every corporate office, enticing people to release tension by squeezing them between their fingers. But do these ridiculous balls actually help people decompress? Should you regularly use them or is it a better idea to blow off some steam by throwing stress balls out the window?

From work to school to romantic relationships, there’s no shortage of challenges in our lives. Often, this creates an internal conflict that manifests itself as stress. When left unchecked, stress will not only take its toll on our emotional and mental health but also on our physical well-being.

Chronic stress can lead to headaches, an upset stomach, sleep problems, and fatigue. If left unchecked, stress can contribute to far more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

One of the symptoms of stress is muscle tension. We literally clench our body’s muscles when feeling psychologically stressed, prompted by a flood of hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Essentially, these chemicals prime the body for “fight or flight”. However, it’s not always an option to fight your boss or run away from work — this is where the ubiquitous stress ball might come in handy.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, David Posen, a stress expert and author of Is Work Killing You?: A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress,” says that at least some of that stress energy can be channeled towards a physical object. Stress balls can work really well, Posen says, because they prompt you to squeeze and release, leaving you less tense.

America’s favorite squeezable knick-knack has come a long way since it was invented in the 1980s by Alex Carswell, a 29-year-old TV writer who came up with the idea after an angry phone call with his boss compelled him to throw a magic marker at a framed photo of his mother. “It made me feel very good at the moment,” Carswell said later that year, “but I also had a broken picture of my mother and her dog I had to get reframed, and a mess to clean up.” Today, hundreds of millions of foam balls are being manufactured all over the world. But do they actually do anything?

In 2006, researchers found that stress balls can improve the focus and attention spans of sixth-graders. Another study found that fidgeting with objects — squeezing a stress ball or twirling a pen, for instance — can help boost productivity by giving the mind a break, making it easier to pay attention to the task upon returning to it. According to MIT researchers, fidgeting objects that soothe or calm have to be smooth or squeezable, whereas fidgets meant to make people alert are generally clickable, sharp, or pokey. Yet another study found that stress balls helped relieve patients’ anxiety during surgery.

However, the only study that specifically researched the effectiveness of stress balls in reducing the physiological symptoms of stress found that they don’t do much. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that stress balls are not effective in reducing heart rate, blood pressure, or skin conductance following an episode of induced acute stress in college-aged
individuals. The sample size was rather small, though, and involved only 30 students. Also, in light of its productivity-enhancing and anxiety-relieving properties, stress balls may be worth your time.

Bear in mind that if you’re chronically stressed, no amount of squishy foam balls or teddy bears will help you in the long-run. To release the physical and emotional tension in the body from ongoing stress, doctors recommend exercising, dancing, venting with friends, and — why not — letting it all out by crying or shouting.

THC stress

The Physical and Psychological Effects of Stress

To an extent, stress is a fact of life for all of us. Its purpose is to overcharge the body, offering it additional acuity, energy, and strength needed to address the challenges at hand. However, stress can also be very taxing, and chronic stress is no joke. Below, we examine the effects of stress on our minds, bodies, and social lives.

View the Male Nurse Infographic from Malone Online

Your Brain on Stress

Stress is most immediately processed by your brain. Once triggered, your brain unleashes a cascade of hormones that create many of the other reactions we commonly associate with stress.

  • Stress “Enters” the Amygdala
    • The amygdala receives images and sounds and accordingly assigns them the emotion of panic.
    • When the amygdala perceives danger, it signals the hypothalamus.
  • Signals from the Hypothalamus
    • The hypothalamus acts like a command center, controlling the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which speed up or slow down responses, respectively.
    • With the signal from the amygdala, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Fight-or-Flight
    • The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response to provide you with a burst of energy to confront or flee from danger.
    • When activated by the hypothalamus, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.
    • Epinephrine creates a chain reaction of the common effects of stress: faster heartbeat, muscle tension, quickness of breath, and sharpened senses.

The Effects of Stress

Stress affects both our minds and our bodies. Because changes in our psychology can impact us physically and vice versa, the effects of stress can be interrelated, and we often experience distinct symptoms — especially in cases of chronic stress.

Physical Effects of Stress

    • Headache
    • Muscle tension and pain
    • Chest pain
    • Fatigue
    • Decreased libido
    • Upset stomach
  • Insomnia

Psychological Effects of Stress

    • Mental fog
    • Anxiety
    • Restlessness
    • Lack of motivation
    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression

Bodily Reactions to Stress

Far from impacting only the brain, stress takes its toll on all the systems of the human body. While stress sometimes catches us off guard, chronic stress can have debilitating effects.

Nervous System

    • Interference with timing, balance, and communication
    • Decline in short-term memory
  • Mood and anxiety disorders

Musculoskeletal System

    • Muscle tension
    • Headaches and migraines
    • Chronic pain
  • Muscle atrophy

Respiratory System

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilation
  • Panic attacks
  • Asthma attacks

Cardiovascular System

    • Increased heart rate
    • Strong heart contractions
    • Elevated blood pressure
    • Inflammation
    • Hypertension
    • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Endocrine System

    • Increased hormone production
    • Chronic fatigue
    • Metabolic disorders
  • Immune disorders

Gastrointestinal System

    • Fluctuation in appetite
    • Heartburn and acid reflux
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Gassiness
    • Bloating
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Reproductive System

    • Reduced libido
    • Fertility problems
  • Irregular menstruation

Signs of Stress on the Body

While many of the effects of stress are internal, some are readily apparent.

Stressed

Relaxed

Weight

Rapid gain or loss

Stable

Hands

Trembling, sweaty

Steady, dry

Skin

Red, broken out, itchy

Clear

Breathing

Labored

Regular

Speech

Rapid, mumbled

Fluent

Social Impact of Stress

Stress affects not only you, but also your family, friends, and colleagues. which. The psychological and physical effects of stress can come together to have debilitating social impacts.

Increased levels of the hormone vasopressin, which is also released when we become stressed, can lead to:

    • Difficulty negotiating interpersonal relationships
    • Greater isolation, frustration, and stress
  • Further increased levels of vasopressin

The symptoms and impacts of stress can vary greatly, from very subtle to severe. They are hard to pinpoint and often create a cycle that can be difficult to break. Don’t let stress get the best of you! Learn more about the physical and psychological effects of stress is the first step to living a healthier, happy, and stress-free life.

Pursuing a Counseling Career

Interested in helping people find healthy ways to deal with the physical and psychological effects of stress? Consider an online master’s degree in mental health counseling from Malone University. The program gives you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience while still benefiting from an online classroom environment.

Getting rid of debt might not only make you happier — but also smarter

We all know just how much pressure and stress comes from having debts, but it might do much more than that. Now, a new study finds that getting rid of debt can not only reduce stress and anxiety but also improve impulse control and cognitive performance.

The study analyzed 200 low-income people in Singapore, who had their long-running mortgage debts unexpectedly paid off by a charity called ideas42. Participants were given tests to assess cognitive performance, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and their ability to make more beneficial financial decisions. The test returned some interesting results.

First of all, the proportion of participants showing generalized anxiety disorders went from 78% to 53% — an impressive but expected change. As expected, not having debts makes people far less anxious. In addition, the number of people who preferred instant gratification dropped from 44% to 33% — another symptom of being more relaxed, but also capable of making better long-term decisions. In other words, the participants’ impulse control has improved.

However, a more surprising find came on the cognitive function tests. Average error rates dropped from 17% to 4% after the debt was paid down — a substantial improvement.

The findings are extremely important because they suggest that people in poverty, even when equally capable as those of higher-income status, find it very hard to escape poverty.

‘Because debt impairs psychological functioning and decision-making, it would be extremely challenging for even the motivated and talented to escape poverty,’ says Dr. Ong Qiyan, from the National University of Singapore, who led the study.

This is consistent with previous research, which concluded that poverty creates a vicious cycle which is extremely difficult to escape. Essentially, people’s brains are overtaxed by having to deal with the numerous emergencies caused by scarcity. This affects people’s ability to make high-quality decisions and produces long-term mental fatigue.

Even when not necessarily in poverty, debt can cause significant long-term health issues, as well as impair people’s societal progress. This situation would be extremely familiar to America, where student debts amounted to a record-breaking $1.5 trillion, which creates a major source of stress for the country’s educated elite. In a survey last year, a third of all students said student debt is a major source of life stress.

All of this indicates that poverty is much harder than you’d think to put on paper. It’s not easy to quantify, and it’s definitely not easy to escape. Poverty is unforgiving, leaving no room for error or risk. For people living in poverty, being capable and competent is not always enough, the study suggests. The study concludes:

“Poverty is one of the world’s most complicated problems, and there are no easy answers or magic bullet solutions. Global economic trends, including the recent recession, and systemic forces such as racism and classism contribute to the current state of affairs.”

Mouse.

Activating one gene in the brains of male mice helps reverse depression

Activating an excitatory gene may help turn around classic symptoms of depression like social isolation and loss of interest — if you’re a dude.

Mouse.

Pictured: definitely a dude.
Image via Pixabay.

New research found that jump-starting SIRT1, a gene which governs cellular metabolism, can help the male brain bounce back from classic symptoms of depression. The study was performed using an animal model but the team is confident their findings carry over well to other species, us included.

Messy, stressy, and depressy

“It has an antidepressant-like effect,” says Dr Xin-Yun Lu, the study’s corresponding author and a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

The team turned to the prefrontal cortex (PfC), an area of the brain involved in a host of complex behaviors. Past research has shown that the PfC, which helps modulate emotional responses and controls neurotransmitter levels in the brain, plays a key role in major depression. In broad lines, inactivity in this region is associated with depression — as neural activity in the PfC drops, depression severity increases.

Looking for a way to boost activity in the PfC, the team turned to SIRT1, an excitatory gene. SIRT1 plays a key role in modulating the activity of cells. Their plan was to forcibly activate this gene in excitatory neurons — those that tell other neurons, in turn, to activate or stand-by.

First, the team tried inactivating this gene in excitatory neurons in male mice. The mice quickly developed symptoms of depression like social isolation and general loss of interest/apathy. This showed the team that they were on the right track. So, for the next step, they tried the exact opposite — chemically activating the SIRT1 gene in the same neurons. For those mice whose depression was caused by stress (and not induced through gene manipulation), the symptoms of depression were reversed by the procedure, the team reports.

Dr. Lu’s team explains that SIRT1 also has another role that may explain this anti-depressive effect — it regulates mitochondrial function. In plain English, the gene tells cells how much energy they can produce. At least part of the depressive symptoms seen when inactivating SIRT1 can be explained by a reduced number of mitochondria and impaired expression of genes involved in ATP (adenosine triphosphate, basically cellular fuel) production. Excitatory neurons simply don’t have enough energy to draw on when SIRT1 doesn’t function properly, which reduces overall activity in the PfC.

On one hand, SIRT1 inactivation (caused by stress) leads to symptoms of depression by reducing neural activity in areas of the brain involved in mood regulation. Problems like manic behavior and seizures, on the other hand, indicate excessive neural activity in the same areas, the team reports.

Depression is generally considered to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lu says some individuals likely are born with a variant of SIRT1 which predisposes them to depression — although environmental factors must also come into play for depression to happen. She notes that the SIRT1 variant is likely rare and only associated with depression rather than considered causative.

Still, depressed mice and humans act similarly, Lu says, which includes an impaired ability to feel pleasure called anhedonia. The team hopes that drugs modulating SIRT1 expression can one day be used to treat both insufficient and excessive neural activity in the PfC, given their efficiency in mice models.

However, the team also notes that this process didn’t work in female mice, despite the fact that the SIRT1 variant was first identified in a study on depressed women. They believe this comes down to physical differences in the PfC — such as the numbers of neurons and synapse architecture — between the two sexes. Dr. Lu is now investigating if the hippocampus, another brain region important in depression, shows similar sex disparities.

The paper “SIRT1 in forebrain excitatory neurons produces sexually dimorphic effects on depression-related behaviors and modulates neuronal excitability and synaptic transmission in the medial prefrontal cortex” has been published in the journal Nature.