Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Aid or Ailment of Stress

This is my first semester here as a transfer student. On top of preparing for classes, adjusting to a new living situation, orientating myself to our large campus and settling into a teeming schedule of school and a new job - I have a naturally stressing personality. Needless to say, my first-day-of-school jitters were overwhelming. My high-strung feelings during that first week of school, coupled with an increased exposure to pathogens (and maybe not the most nutritious diet), nearly fatefully set me up to catch something. And veritably so, I caught the flu the second week in.
            I almost laughed out loud reading this chapter (13) to the relatable synchronistic topic it addresses – stress and the effects it can have on our health. I have noticed, throughout my life, my lower tolerance to stress, or rather my excitable hormonal response to stressful situations. Flinn explains that we have no clear explanation linking parts of the brain that assess our social environment and our hormonal system that controls stress hormones (243).  However, the chapter makes clear that our hormonal response to stress is heavily determined by our psychosocial experiences, particularly at younger ages. Though, our hormonal response may be beneficial in short-term situations, chronic stress with high cortisol levels may deplete cellular energy and immune reserves, leading to higher frequency of illness.
            From an evolutionary perspective, it seems contradictory that an organism would suppress immune response in a chronically stressful situation when exposure to pathogens may be high. There are certainly many complex factors that must be taken into consideration to understand the evolutionary benefit of our hormonal response to stress, especially since each individuals experience is unique. This subject is quite interesting – something I would like to spend more effort understanding (a good 20% project). 


  1. Hi Paige!
    I wanted to first start by saying that I was thinking the same thing as you as I was reading the chapter. I could definitely relate to you and to the different sections of the chapter, especially in the section called “Critical Response to Naturally Occuring Social Threats” discussing how the HPA system is altered by family oriented environmental stressors. Although my situation no longer is towards family oriented stressors, the overwhelming stressors caused by the college life and a heavier workload continue my cycle of stress and unfortunately, elevating my risks for certain illnesses because of a suppressed immune system. When people joke about whether or not they’ll get sick right before the exam, I never took it seriously since I would just try my best to avoid it through hand washing or avoiding people that were sick, but after reading that its due to elevated cortisol levels and your immune system getting continuously suppressed, I see that my attempts might in fact be futile, and it was just by chance that I didn’t get sick.
    Reading that “the chronic stress produced by modern human social environments may present novel challenges that the system is not designed to handle” (Sapolsky, 1994), I also came to the same question as to why the human body has used the same stress response that was developed to deal with acute stressors, to deal with long term stressors that are harmful to the body. Like you said, it does seem like a contradiction that organisms “would suppress immune response in a chronically stressful situation when exposure to pathogens may be high.” I’d like to learn more about to what extent these chronic stressors have the ability to alter the HPA response, and whether or not it’s reversible. According to the chapter, “chronically stressed children may develop abnormal cortisol response”, and as a result “permanently alter HPA response”, so I’d like to know if that applies at any period of someone’s life that becomes extremely stressful. (248)
    Do we have the ability to alter our HPA response permanently, even if we didn’t have a history of long term stress at an early age? What is the benefit of maintaining this stress response if it doesn’t appear to “enhance specific acute mental functions and help guide neural remodeling?” (250).

    I’m really interested in covering this topic for the 80/20 group project, and maybe we could talk and perhaps work together during the semester!
    Let me know!

  2. I agree, as I was reading "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," I couldn't help but laugh...I was hoping that the article would elaborate on stress and how it stimulates the genital organs. For some strange reason I enjoy reading about stimulation, and arousal of the nerve endings in our ability to climate. I knew that the brain was a powerful and important organ, but without it you would not be able to lead a productive life. I wonder if you can teach your brain to secrete a certain hormone to combat diseases (Cancer, HIV, Hepatitis C)? I may do some further research and include it in my project.

  3. I really like your analysis of the chapter, especially when you began to question the function of shutting down immune system when stressed. While looking for related articles to contribute to the discussion, I came across this blog post about at study that looked at how stress shuts down goal-directed behavior, cleverly entitled: Stress Hormones Turn off Goal-Directed Behavior. Apparently when these stress hormones are introduces into the system the brain is affected so that it goes on a sort of autopilot, not adjusting in anyway. I think that this shows that when stressed the body seems to shut down several different functions of our body. It’s not all together useful, but perhaps it is the only way that the body knows how to survive.

    Furthermore other studies show that stress can affect us at several ages. Another post that I came across discusses how lower-stressed infants are less likely to develop allergies, called Low Stress Babies Show Fewer Allergies. I’m sure it goes without saying, but my overall conclusion is that one can benefit from less stress in his or her life.

    Still it is easy to say this and hard to do. You stated that you had a lower tolerance of stress. My sister is the same. Although we grew up in the same environment and the same circumstances, she was the worrier. To tell her to stress less wouldn’t do. In fact it might make her stress more. Even with all of this research and knowledge about stress, is it possible to over come it?