Category Archives: Stress

Sean McCormick, PhD (Public Health)

Temple OwlUPDATE: I successfully completed the Doctorate of Philosophy in Public Health at Temple University (concentration in Social and Behavioral Science)!! My diss is at the publishers. I will share links when they become available!!

In the meantime you can catch my work on ResearchGate.

Looking forward to the next big things and some structural equation modeling with the same smoking cessation, coping and urge data! No spoilers!


Improving Health Outcomes among Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Tomorrow (2.17.12) – Free lecture/Seminar at Temple University

Improving Health Outcomes among Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Carolyn Y. Fang, PhD
Associate Professor and Co-Leader of the Cancer Prevention & Control Program
Fox Chase Cancer Center
941 Ritter Annex (Public Health Conference Room)
February 17, 12-1 pm

Studies of head and neck cancer patients have noted that the social environment may be associated with various cancer outcomes, including survival. To date, the potential mechanisms that may underlie such associations have not been well-studied in this population. This seminar will present data from our studies that highlight key pathways linking the social environment with biological processes that may impact cancer outcomes in this patient population. In addition, directions for future interventions designed to enhance survivorship will be discussed.

Sponsored by the Social & Behavioral Health Interventions (SBHI) lab and the Department of Public Health, Temple University

Yoga reduces general inflammation


A newly published study has found that the regular practice of yoga can lower the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood stream. Cytokines are signalling molecules that regulate the various cellular components of inflammation, an immune-based response to threat (physical or psychological). Long-term inflammation contributes to many health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and asthma.

In this study conditions of stress were implemented through tasks such as holding their bare foot in very cold water, or solving increasingly difficult math problems without a calculator. The researchers also found that those who practiced yoga had less dramatic responses (less increase in cytokine activity, less self-reported anxiety and stress) to the stressors.

The results of this study speak to the wide-ranging benefits of yoga, and other relaxation techniques. This study also highlights the fact that we can train ourselves to have less severe reactions to stressors in our lives. Over time these benefits can really add up, resulting in long-term improvements in physical and mental health.

Is STRESS getting a bad rap?

Stress research is a huge and growing field of science. Stress can trigger and exacerbate many types if physical (heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, etc) and mental disorders (anxiety, depression, etc). Stress has also been shown to negatively impact the immune system on a cellular level. It’s no wonder we hear so much about how stress is bad.

But, what most reports fail to highlight is that we only really need to worry about chronic stress. Chronic stress, as mentioned in the pre-requisite entry, is more dangerous because of the long-term health effects posed by an elongated stress response. So, why is stress getting a bad rap (or why do I think so)? Two reasons: 1. Failure to differentiate between chronic stress and acute stress/normal stress. 2. Failure to recognize that some (acute) stress is good for you! That’s right, I said it. Some stress is good for you! Let’s take an example that everyone can relate to: TAXES!

Most people would agree that doing taxes is stressful. I concur. But let’s break down the experience. Tax time comes around, and you start to feel the tension, the worry, the pressure. Why do you feel those things? It could be a number of things, but most likely you have that reaction because doing taxes is unpleasant, and could cost you time and money. The idea of taxes is also unpleasant because it’s something we must do. If we don’t there are potentially major repercussions (i.e. audit, jail time). Taxes also have potential to affects our financial security and even potentially affect our home life and relationships. The actual tasks associated with taxes are also unpleasant; the forms and language are confusing, the mathematical calculations, etc. Essentially everyone finds these experiences unpleasant. The big questions are “How do you deal with the unpleasantness? How do you cope?” Some people suck it up, gather the appropriate forms, envelopes, stamps, software, whatever is needed, put aside some time, and file their taxes, on time. Other people avoid filing their taxes, either through procrastination, or by failing to file entirely.

If you avoid your taxes (or dealing with any stressor), you are setting yourself up to experience stress over a longer period of time, whether you put it off until the last minute, or you don’t do them at all, in either case you are going to worry about your taxes more and for a longer period of time, thus welcoming and contributing to chronic stress in your life. Not good.

If you approach your taxes, engage the process, and take the steps necessary to complete the task, then you will successfully remove the stressor, sooner rather than later. Good for you!

So what’s the real difference in these two reactions? Everyone experiences some initial stress associated with doing taxes, but some people, over the long-term experience less stress associated with taxes (or with their job, relationship, bills, whatever). The major difference is that individuals who engage the process of doing these taxes used the initial feelings of stress to inform and guide their behaviors. Individuals who avoided doing their taxes did not gain anything from the experience of stress.

Stress is part of our physiology (and psychology) for good reasons. Stress can be very informative. It tells us when something is wrong, when we are in danger, or something in our life needs attention. Stress acts like a signal system that tells us to take action (whether it be run from the hungry lion, or deal with our taxes, or whatever the source of stress may be). Acute stress is not something to be avoided, it is meant help us recognize how and when there opportunities to reduce long-term experiences of stress. Problems arise when we ignore and avoid responding to our stress, or do so lackadaisically, or irrationally.

Let’s go back to the question at hand: Is stress getting a bad rap?

Yes, I think so. Current societal trends encourage eliminating all stress from our lives. Instead of eliminating or avoiding all stress, we should engage it. We should be listening to the stress our lives. Use it to inform our decisions, guide our actions, help us prioritize and be a source of motivation. As it stands, based on our current conceptualization of stress, I suggest that we are missing an opportunity to live more productive and efficient lives and live with less chronic stress.

*The ideas from this post stem from various pre-existing theories of stress, namely Social Problem Solving Theory (see D’Zurilla & Goldfreid, 1971; D’Zurilla & Nezu, 1982). Social Problem Solving (SPS) Theory is part of my current asthma research and will be discussed in more detail in its own entry. Stay tuned!

WHAT IS STRESS? A pre-requisite entry for “Is stress getting a bad rap?”

Stress is a major buzz word in today’s society. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. Talk of stress permeates daily news articles, talk shows and websites (like this one!). You can create a RSS feed about stress, and there are articles about reducing the stress associated with using RSS feeds!

Why has stress become such a hot topic, for both the lay person and the research community? Well, stress affects everyone! And, it is associated with a wide variety of health issues. Besides the more well known diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, you can find articles about stress contributing to practically any disease or condition. Here’s a bit on stress causing hair loss. Here’s one on stress causing ADHD. So we get it, stress is bad for your health.

But hang on a minute! Hold your horses!
Hold your horses!

Stress has many definitions (engineering, health, economic, etc). One must be very clear, especially in research, about what definition of “stress” you are using. Stress, in terms of health, is the psychological and physical response to our perceptions of our circumstances being threatening or overwhelming. The things in our life that elicit the stress response are called “stressors”. So, just to be clear, stressors are the cause and stress is the response.

Stress, as a response, originally evolved as an adaptive mechanism. When animals (and humans) are presented with a threat to well-being, (example, a hungry lion chasing you) the stress response, characterized by increased cortisol, heart rate, respiration, adrenaline, etc, helps you escape the threat of the lion! Our perception of the lion as stressful/threatening and the physiological changes that follow help us survive.

Stressors today are very different from the hungry lion (e.g. worry/anxiety about money troubles, traffic jams everyday after work, relationship troubles, etc). Most contemporary stressors are not threatening our immediate survival, but we still experience stress. Unfortunately, for humans, most of our stressors don’t go away like a lion might. The stressors of contemporary living are longer lasting and there are more of them and as a result we experience a continually activated stress response (chronic stress).

This point is well illustrated by the title of Robert Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”. The idea is that once the lion has stopped chasing the zebra, the stress response shuts off (and the zebra doesn’t get an ulcer).

Both short-term/acute and chronic stress are driven by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol causes and helps trigger many of changes characteristic of the stress response mentioned above. While those changes are helpful in the short-term, to escape the lion, if continually activated the stress response can have a massively negative impact on the cardiovascular system, immune system, nervous system, digestion, sleep, mood, etc, basically all aspects of health.

Once we understand what stress is, many important questions follow:

1. What are the stressors in our life?
2. Is there something about the way we perceive our world, our situations that makes us experience life as more stressful than it ought to be? Are we causing ourselves stress?
4. How can we reduce the negative impact of stress?
5. Why are some people more negatively affected by stress than others?

I could start to answer these questions, but, instead, I’d like to ask a couple questions that I don’t think are being asked enough: Is stress all that bad? Is stress getting a bad rap? I’ll address those questions in the next post!