New article collection for Mental Health Awareness Week

Are we coping with stress?

New article collection for Mental Health Awareness Week

People seem more stressed than ever: we run from one meeting to the next, hit deadlines and pack our spare time with activities. With pressure to perform at work and at home, it can often feel as if we’re running on adrenaline.

Stress itself isn’t a mental health issue. In fact, it’s a perfectly natural biological response – one that’s kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years. We’re no longer being chased by predators, but our biological response is the same: we sense danger, we shut down some hormonal and cognitive systems and we ‘fight or flight’ to survive.

It doesn’t matter to our minds whether it’s a lion or an email we’re running from, we still experience the same primal response to the stress – and it’s one that’s harming our mental health. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May 2018) focuses on stress, to raise awareness of its role in mental health, and what we can do about it.

To mark the week, we have put together a special collection of articles on different aspects of stress, its causes and potential solutions. You can read the collection free for six months.

An early start to stress

Our experience of stress starts before we’re even born: levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the mother during pregnancy have been linked to a whole range of effects in the baby, from being overweight to having heart problems and even developing psychiatric problems years later.

In a study in Infant Behavior and Development, researchers from Boston University in the US found that high levels of cortisol in the mother’s hair was linked to higher average levels of cortisol in the baby’s saliva at six months old. By watching 131 mother-infant pairs play at home, they determined what sort of interaction they had. The results showed that maternal intrusiveness – the amount of time that the mother took away a toy the infant was actively engaged with – influenced the link between cortisol levels in the mother and the infant, with the link being stronger when the mothers were intrusive.

Children’s behavior problems can also lead to stress in the parent. An article in Research in Developmental Disabilities looks at the impact of behavior problems in intellectually disabled children on the stress levels of their parents, exploring whether mindfulness makes a difference. The researchers, from the University of Hong Kong, found mindfulness to have very different roles in parental stress in two situations: when the parents reported behavior problems in their child and when the teacher reported problems.

“The results showed that when child behavior problems were measured by parents’ reports, parental mindfulness was a mediator between child behavior problems and parental stress,” wrote the researchers. “The more the parents reported that their children had behavior problems, the less they reported being mindful, which in turn the more stressful they were.”

But when the teachers’ reports were used as a measure of behavior, parental mindfulness acted as a moderator, diminishing the link between behavior problems and parental stress. The researchers found that the link was no longer significant when the parents reported high levels of mindfulness, suggesting it could be a beneficial way to reduce stress.

Inheriting stress triggers

Parents can also pass on characteristics and behaviors that can lead to stress, such as perfectionism. In their paper in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers from The University of Western Ontario and colleagues across Canada studied perfectionism and paternal psychological control in 159 father-daughter pairs.

They found that the fathers’ demands of perfection predicted two kinds of perfection in the daughters: self-critical and personal standards. What’s more, daughters’ reports of their fathers’ psychological control also predicted both kinds of perfectionism in the daughters. In other words, controlling and demanding fathers have daughters under pressure – from themselves and society – to be perfect.

Perfectionism can be positive or negative, and the kind of perfectionist a person is determines whether their perfectionism causes them stress. According to an article in Eating Behaviors, positive perfectionists are less stressed and less likely to have problems with emotional eating, whereas negative perfectionists are more stressed and more likely to emotionally eat.

By surveying 386 adults in China, the researchers, from Jiangnan University and Shanghai University, showed that stress is the mediator between the type of perfectionism and emotional eating. The authors suggest practitioners working with people who have emotional eating problems could find ways of enhancing positive perfectionism to reduce stress, therefore reducing emotional eating.

Modern life is stressful

In her book Overwhelmed, Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, claims that every second, we collectively email the equivalent of 16,000 copies of Shakespeare’s complete works. This kind of information overload has been shown to cause stress, and a wave of innovations to combat it – like Calm, Apple’s 2017 app of the year – are attempting to get us offline.

But a study in Computers in Human Behavior shows that putting down your smartphone could be causing stress too. When people become dependent on their phones, they can develop a fear of not being able to use them, called nomophobia. While there’s lots of research explaining the causes of nomophobia, its effects are less well understood – especially its impact on stress.

Researchers from HEC Montréal in Canada developed a theoretical model to explain the effect of nomophobia on stress and collected data from 270 smartphone users that supported the model. They found that nomophobia leads to stress because of social threat – in other words, nomophobia can cause feelings of being socially threatened. While there’s more research to be done on this relatively new phobia, the authors say managers in particular should understand the potential impact of taking employees’ phones away: “clearer guidance can, and should, be provided to individuals, healthcare practitioners, and managers in our increasingly smartphone-driven world.”

Read the collection

Stress is a complex issue in modern society – one that has many very different causes and potential solutions. Research continues to shed light on stress and how we can deal with it; tools like ScienceDirect and Scopus can help navigate the research and identify where we need to understand more. You can read some of the newest research on stress and mental health in this collection, freely available for six months.