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Stress affects health, and physiological changes support this assertion. Two studies have used telomere length as an indicator of health, and both test stress’s impact. One of the studies tests whether mothers who have a chronically-ill child—essentially creating a demanding environment have shorter telomeres than mothers who had healthy children (“Mother Experiment”). Another study tests whether perceived neighborhood problems correlate to shorter telomere length, especially among African-American women (“Neighborhood Experiment”). My group posed the question of “how does perception of stress predict the depletion of our health versus more objective, physiological measures of stress?” I hypothesize that decreasing perception of stress—rather than directly targeting its physiological responses measures would lead to the greatest decrease in negative health impacts from stress.
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We must first establish the premise that perception causes physiological responses to stress in that order. If physiological responses preceded perception of stress, then limiting physiological responses rather than decreasing stress perception would be more ideal. While there are analogous alternative theories, such as the James-Lange Theory, in which physiological responses precede cognitive responses for emotion, when it comes to stress response, perception precedes physiological responses. Our brain processes potential stressors and relays this information via the reticular formation to the hypothalamus, limbic system, and higher brain regions to interpret the potential stressor. The brain then relays, again, via the reticular formation, to activate the sympathetic nervous system and its corresponding sympathoadreno medullary axis response, and also activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis response. The higher brain regions responsible for processing perception actually cause the physiological responses. Therefore, because perception causes the physiological responses, perception should be targeted to prevent physiological responses from occurring in the first place. Physiological responses are only reactions to the perception of stress.
Reducing perception of stress can benefit health, evident from the Neighborhood Experiment. After adjusting for socioeconomic status and other potential confounding variables, the study found that African-American women who perceived more neighborhood problems stressors had shorter telomeres. Lower stress perception correlated with longer telomere lengths. Men in the study, who were much more likely to be single, did not have the same association between perceived neighborhood problems. Researchers in the study employed social roles to explain this discrepancy. I believe stress perception is simply shorter lasting in men due to the higher rates of drinking among the men, along with marital statuses as single—with less responsibility presumably when they do not need to take care of children—men may simply perceive neighborhood problems less continuously even if they had the same initial perceptions as women while taking the researchers’ surveys. The perceptions may have been more ephemeral among men, which is why health is less effected. Thus, lower perception of stress is better for health.
While the Neighborhood Experiment leaves much skeptics, the Mother Experiment puts those concerns about the relationship between perception, stress responses, and health to rest. In this study, there was no statistically significant difference between the group of mothers who had chronically-ill children and those who have healthy children. However, there is an association between years of stress-having to raise a chronically-ill child and physiological stressors, indicators of health, and telomere length. With my hypothesis, one explanation can center around how mothers who have been caregivers for a longer time are more perspective of their stresses and have more easily-triggered stress response systems. Stress response systems create oxidative damage to DNA, shortening the telomeres. Similarly, physiological measures are caused by perception of stress. Reducing perception of stress therefore prevents stress responses such as increased oxidation. Therefore, minimizing physiological responses and measures is less effective than just simply lowering stress perception itself.
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Perception of stress is important in triggering the stress response system, which in turn damages health through hormonal interactions with the immune system, DNA, and other subsystems. To prevent perception from triggering the stress response systems in the first place, perception must be altered. Seeing potential stressors as-such as while appraising stress in the transactional model challenges is one way of preventing the stress response system from overreacting. Seeing potential stressors as challenges in fact actually increases performance among students, athletes, and musicians, instead of the negative performance we expect to see from poorer health. Meditation can also alter perception of a potential stressor. The key in any prevention of stress-related health impacts is to prevent damaging physiological stress responses from occurring in the first place once physiological responses could be measured, like high cortisol levels, perception of stress has already occurred.
The findings in the two studies mentioned, as well as other confirmed facts, support the idea that perception of stress causes physiological stress responses, which in turn damages health. The two studies correlate perceived stress-with years of caregiving a good indicator of “perceived” stress in the Mother Experiment-with shortening telomeres. From what we already know, perception of stress creates stress responses, which in turn release hormonal signals which can damage health. Thus, perception of stress creates stress responses which in turn creates poorer health. The best way to prevent stress-induced deterioration of health is preventing physiological stress from occurring in the first place, by limiting the perception of stress.
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