Tag Archives: Stress

MASH-UP TIME! Social Cognitive Theories of Health Behaviors with Associative Learning

I am not a huge fan of music mash-ups, made famous mostly by artists like Dj Earworm, and Girl Talk. Yet, I wanted to post about mash-ups because they have been useful tools for me in explaining to myself my dissertation, and how the theories serve the broader purpose the research; using theory and evidence to inform decisions in terms of educational content, type of program (e.g. individual, group, telephone, web, mobile app) that will enable people to most consistently overcome difficulties quitting smoking.

Mash-ups are one or more songs, usually in the same or complimentary key signatures and are often at the same tempo. This allows the songs to fit together. Here’s a decent example .

Instead of trying to create new music, I will be layering two theories of smoking relapse as well as their respective descriptions of successful quit smoking attempts to better prevent relapse for people wanting to quit smoking (or changing any other behavior).

Instead of Gagnam Style vs. Ghostbuster’s Theme I used Associative Learning Theory (part of Pavlovian/classical conditioning) vs. Folkman and Lazarus, and D’Zurilla and Nezu, Transactional and Social Problem-Solving frameworks of stress, negative affect, and maladaptive coping ( high smoking-risk situations).

The basic assumption is that identifying these patterns could enable more effective support to high negative affect and stress-response smokers; those most likely to have difficulty quitting due to vulnerabilities in problem-solving, generating alternate solutions, managing negative emotions, and other such cognitive-affective-behavioral characteristics, that especially under stress are hypothesized to lead to relapse.

P.S. Next stop! Structural equation modeling of social problem-solving, negative affect, and smoking urge in baseline cue exposure data! pre vs. post exposure models! Details in the manuscript in the coming months. My dissertation is also at the publishers! For now find our work on Research Gate: Sean McCormick. 


Psychoneuroimmunological Pathways: Social Stress & Inflammation

Alexy Grey art

A recent study from researchers at the UCLA Cousin’s Center for Psychoneuroimmunology revealed a connection between brain activity in the regions that respond to stress and anxiety in social situations and inflammatory immune responses. This lends support to the mind-body (psychology-physiology) connection in the exacerbation of diseases like asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression. I was excited to blog about these findings because they are relevant to my ongoing research “Life Stress, Social Problem Solving and Asthma”.

Essentially, I am hypothesizing that asthma patients who can more effectively cope with and adapt to stressful life situations will have better control over their asthma and have a better quality of life. The pathways that I suggest in my model are behavioral (i.e. medication adherence, seeking follow-up care, environmental asthma management strategies, etc), psychological (i.e. more effective coping and problem solving results in less anxiety and stress) and biological (i.e. anxiety and stress are associated with changes in immunology/inflammation and airway physiology).

The findings of the UCLA researchers are looking at the biological pathways from a very direct angle; measuring brain activity and inflammation in concert. While these findings are interesting and support the mind-body connection on a new level, there is still something lacking in terms of payback. That is to say, even if we can understand the tendencies and mechanics of the mind-body connection what good will come of it?

Perhaps my training has skewed my perspective but I suggest that the good will come from psychology and the science of health behavior. We can teach people coping skills and encourage them to engage in more adaptive life strategies. This can change their perception of their abilities to cope, changing their experience of stress, improving their disease self-management and, as this study suggests, support balance in the immune system.

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!