Can't Stress This Enough

I realized the other morning that I'm a prime candidate for, among other things, depression, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It was a rude awakening, prompted by my normal perusal of the New York Times.

Two stories jumped out at me from the Aug. 18 edition, grabbing some reluctant part of my brain and not letting go until I'd given the pieces my full attention. One article was written by Benedict Carey with the headline "Mental Stress Training Is Planned for U.S. Soldiers"; the other, in a separate section, was by Natalie Angier, headlined "Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop." The common denominator of the two pieces, at least as I read them, was the cognitive predisposition some of us have for what Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley used to call "stinkin' thinkin'" and techniques we might use to reduce the accompanying mental distress.

Carey's piece focused on a new U.S. Army initiative to train all 1.1 million of its soldiers, reservists, and National Guard members in "emotional resiliency" as a way to combat the rising number of cases of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. According to the article, about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are plagued with these and other mental health problems, and the theory is that fewer would be affected if they were taught better coping mechanisms.

"The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training," Carey wrote. "Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration--for example, the tendency to assume the worst. ('My wife didn't answer the phone; she must be with someone else.')"

The Angier article examined how the body's response to stress takes on "a self-replicating and ultimately self-defeating life of its own." Explicating experiments conducted on rats and reported in the journal Science, Angier noted that high, sustained stress actually changes the brain's elasticity, causing humans and rodents alike to fall in a rut with potentially dire health consequences.

"As though it weren't bad enough that chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer's disease and make one a very undesirable dinner companion, now researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence," Angier wrote. Tests on the stressed rats, she added, revealed that, "On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed. In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers."

On the plus side, though, those same studies revealed that after four weeks of vacation from their stress-induced environment, the changes in behavior and brain appeared to be reversible, with the refreshed rats regaining their cognitive elasticity as well as their version of executive decision-making powers. And presumably this would work with us humans, too, if we somehow had the luxury of escaping the figurative rat race for such a stretch. It made me wonder what the human equivalent of four weeks is in rat years. It also made me wonder about the sources of stress available to us outside of the military and laboratory maze environments.

NIOSH cites Northwestern National Life as saying, "One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives," and Princeton Survey Research Associates as saying, "Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago." I'm guessing those fractions are a bit dated and that, given the layoffs, budget cuts, hiring freezes, and general economic turbulence of the past couple years, the numbers are now even higher. Job insecurity does, after all, rank as one of the prime work-related stressors. But even among employees who feel mostly at ease about whether they will have a job come tomorrow, stress clearly can exist. It seems built in when one can only watch as coworkers are "let go" and those remaining on the payroll are expected to take up the slack with the understanding that more work will not equal more pay and might in fact mean less and, for the time being at least, that slight, previously annual pay raise, the matching 401(k) arrangement, and the rare bonus are things of the past, even while clearly there is no such "freeze" on the cost of health insurance, children's school clothes, or even milk.

Still, job stress is nothing new. Maybe the execrable economy is exacerbating the situation, or maybe that's just how it feels to me. Either way, NIOSH recognizes it as a problem and makes eight recommendations for how an organization can go about preventing it, courtesy of the journal American Psychologist:

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications--reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.

My impression is that a workplace that has even half of those in place would be a decent place to work. But at a time when just having a job is something of a coup, it's probably helpful to be reminded that there are ways to change the way we think (and respond) to our situations and to remember the brain remodeling effect on those rats, once they were allowed to get away from it all for a while.

Posted by Ronnie Rittenberry on Aug 20, 2009

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