1. Study suggests predicting depression and PTSD before deployment could help soldiers cope

    October 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the BioMed Central press release:

    A set of validated, self-reported questions administered early in a soldier’s career could predict mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after return from deployment, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Psychology.

    The questions assess 14 psychological attributes such as adaptability, coping ability and optimism. They could be used to identify high-risk individuals and provide them with psychological and social resources to help them cope with stressors of deployment including combat trauma and extended separation from friends and family, researchers at Naval Postgraduate School and Research Facilitation Laboratory, USA suggest.

    In addition to scoring psychological health attributes before deployment, the researchers also generated an individual, composite risk score for each soldier using baseline psychological attributes and demographic information such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, marital status, education, and military occupation group. They found that out of those whose score classified them as being at highest risk for psychological health disorders (i.e. at the top 5% of the score), 31% screened positive for depression, while 27% screened positive for PTSD after return from deployment.

    Professor Yu-Chu Shen, lead author of the study said: “We found that soldiers who had the worst pre-military psychological health attribute scores — those in the bottom 5% of scores — carried much higher odds of screening positive for depression and PTSD after returning home than the top 95%. Soldiers who score worst before deployment might be more susceptible to developing debilitating mental health disorders when they are later exposed to combat environments.”

    The findings suggest that psychological screening before deployment, in combination with other personnel information, can be helpful in identifying individuals who carry significant risk for psychological health disorders, according to the authors. Being aware of this risk could enable tailored interventions to increase soldiers’ psychological health prior to exposing them to combat. Identifying individuals at risk of adverse psychological outcomes could also translate into savings on costs resulting from treatment and lost productivity.

    To investigate the association of psychological attributes in soldiers before deployment and their risk for depression and PTSD after their return, the authors used data from three sources on 63,138 soldiers who enlisted after 2008: the Army’s personnel database, pre- and post-deployment health assessments, and the Global Assessment Tool (GAT).

    GAT is an annual resilience and psychological health assessment completed by all members of the US Army. It consists of a 105-item questionnaire that captures 14 attributes of health and resilience that are considered important for life in the military. These attributes include optimism and catastrophizing, which may reflect how a person responds to the stress of combat; positive affect and organisational trust, which capture how a person may respond to leadership; and resilience and coping ability.

    The authors caution that GAT in its current form is not designed to be used as a screening tool on which employment decisions should be based.

    Professor Shen said: “In this study, we illustrate the potential value for psychological health screening such as GAT in public safety and national defense occupations. However, for any strategy based on screenings like this to be successful and effective, we also highlight the importance for future screening tools to be designed to detect and minimize strategic responding — that is personnel adapting their answers if they know that their career progression and chance of deployment may depend on their screening scores. Strategic responding may undermine the effectiveness of a screening tool in identifying the risk for mental health disorders.”


  2. Study suggests early mental health support could reduce incidence of depression and anxiety in extreme preemies

    October 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the McMaster University press release:

    Decreased exposure to bullying and family problems during childhood and adolescence could help reduce adult mental illness in extremely low birth weight preemies, according to a new study from McMaster University.

    Furthermore, early mental health support for extremely low birth weight survivors who are born at 2.2 pounds or less, and their parents could also prove beneficial.

    The study, published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at the impact of mental health risk factors on extremely low birth weight preemies during childhood and adolescence.

    “In terms of major stresses in childhood and adolescence, preterm survivors appear to be impacted more than those born at normal birth weight,” said Ryan J. Van Lieshout, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University and the Albert Einstein/Irving Zucker Chair in Neuroscience.

    “If we can find meaningful interventions for extremely low birth weight survivors and their parents, we can improve the lives of preterm survivors and potentially prevent the development of depression and anxiety in adulthood.”

    The study utilized the McMaster Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW) Cohort, which includes a group of 179 extremely low birth weight survivors and 145 normal birth weight controls born between 1977 and 1982, which has 40 years’ worth of data.

    The study showed that although these preemies were not necessarily exposed to a larger number of risk factors compared to their normal birth weight counterparts, these stresses appeared to have a greater impact on their mental health as adults.

    Besides bullying by peers and a small circle of friends, researchers looked at a number of other risk factors, like maternal anxiety or depression and family dysfunction.

    “We believe it may be helpful to monitor and provide support for the mental health of mothers of preemies, in particular, as for the purposes of this study, they were the primary caregiver,” said Van Lieshout.

    “There can also be family strain associated with raising a preemie and all the related medical care, which can lead to difficulties. Support for the family in a variety of forms might also be beneficial.”

    The paper builds on previous research that identified that extremely low birth weight survivors have an increased risk of mental illness in adulthood.

    “We are concerned that being born really small and being exposed to all the stresses associated with preterm birth can lead to an amplification of normal stresses that predispose people to develop depression and anxiety later in life,” said Van Lieshout.

    He recommended future research focus on the timing and type of supports for risk factors that would create better mental health outcomes in preemies.


  3. Study suggests stress diminishes our capacity to sense new dangers

    October 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Being under stress diminishes our abilities to predict new dangers that we face, a team of psychology researchers finds. Its work runs counter to the conventional view that stress enhances our ability to detect and adjust to these changing sources of threat.

    “Stress does not always increase perceptions of danger in the environment, as is often assumed,” explains Candace Raio, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University and the study’s lead author. “In fact, our study shows that when we are under stress, we pay less attention to changes in the environment, potentially putting us at increased risk for ignoring new sources of threat. As a result, stress can reduce the flexibility of our responses to threats by impairing how well we track and update predictions of potentially dangerous circumstances.”

    The research, conducted in collaboration with Jian Li, a scientist at Peking University, appears in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Although learning to predict threats in our environment is critical to survival, note the study’s authors, who also include NYU Professor Elizabeth Phelps and Assistant Professor Catherine Hartley, it is equally important to be flexible in order to control these responses when new sources of threat change — for instance, from an oncoming car to an out-of-control skateboarder.

    To test our ability to learn to flexibly update threat responses under stressful conditions the researchers conducted a series of experiments that centered on “Pavlovian threat-conditioning.” Here, the subjects viewed images on a computer screen. The appearance of some images were coupled with a mild, electric wrist-shock, serving as a “threat cue,” while other images were never paired with a shock (“safe cue”).

    A day later, half of the participants underwent a laboratory procedure designed to induce stress — this “stress group” placed their arm in an ice-water bath for a few minutes, which elevated two known stress hormones (alpha-amylase and cortisol). Later, all of the study’s subjects repeated the threat-conditioning procedure. However, this time the cue outcomes switched: the earlier threatening cue no longer predicted shock, but the formerly safe cue did.

    While the subjects viewed the images, the scientists collected physiological arousal responses in order to measure how individuals anticipated the outcome of each cue.

    On the second day of the experiment, the stress group was less likely to change their responses to threats (the formerly safe visuals that were now paired with shocks) than was the control group, an indication that stress impaired its ability to be flexible in detecting new threats. Specifically, stressed participants showed reduced physiological response to the new threat cue, suggesting that they did not fully switch their association with this cue from safe to threatening.

    The researchers then applied a computational learning model to further understand how stress affects flexibility in decision making. This analysis revealed a learning deficit for the subjects put under the stress condition — specifically, stress affected an attentional signal (“associability“) — that participants used to update the cue associations. In short, this resulted in a slower rate of learning.


  4. Physical abuse and punishment impact children’s academic performance

    October 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    A Penn State researcher and her collaborator found that physical abuse was associated with decreases in children’s cognitive performance, while non-abusive forms of physical punishment were independently associated with reduced school engagement and increased peer isolation.

    Sarah Font, assistant professor of sociology and co-funded faculty member of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, and Jamie Cage, assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, found that children’s performances and engagement in the classroom are significantly influenced by their exposure to mild, harsh and abusive physical punishment in the home. Their study was recently published in Child Abuse and Neglect.

    While corporal punishment and physical abuse have been linked with reduced cognitive development and academic achievement in children previously, Font’s study is one of the few that simultaneously examines abusive and non-abusive physical punishment as reported by both children and caregivers.

    Even if physical punishment does not result in serious physical injury, children may experience fear and distress, and this stress has been found to negatively impact brain structure, development and overall well-being.

    “This punishment style is meant to inflict minor pain so the child will change their behavior to avoid future punishment, but it does not give children the opportunity to learn how to behave appropriately through explanation and reasoning,” stated Font.

    In this study, over 650 children and their caregivers were examined in three areas of physical punishment: mild corporal punishment, harsh corporal punishment, and physical abuse. The groups reported their use or experience with physical punishment and researchers then measured cognitive outcomes, school engagement, and peer isolation in the children. The data was analyzed to determine trajectories between cognitive and academic performance and how initial and varying exposure to physical punishment and abuse influences them.

    “We found that while all forms of physical punishment and abuse are associated with declines in school engagement, only initial exposure to physical abuse has a significant negative influence on cognitive performance, and only harsh corporal punishment notably increases peer isolation in children and was observed in both child and caregiver reports. This suggests that preventing physical abuse could promote children’s cognitive performance, but it may not be enough to get children to be involved and well-adjusted in school,” said Font.

    Considering that mild physical punishment can develop into physical abuse and that even these mild punishments have consequences on children’s cognitive and social school functioning, parent education on alternative forms of punishment may be one solution to prevent physical abuse.

    Programs that reach parents during services that they regularly use may be one way to give them alternative punishment technique education. This could be a medical professional informing parents during a child’s health visit or staff members of an Early Head Start program providing parent education during the child’s enrollment. “Further research and efforts in these types of interventions needs to continue so we can learn more,” Font said.

    This research was made possible support from the Population Research Institute, part of the Social Science Research Institute.


  5. Coping with stressful organizational change

    October 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Inderscience press release:

    Stress is not a recent phenomenon, but the modern work environment seems to highlight its detrimental effects on employees. This is no more obvious than during times of organisational change. Research published in the International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion, considers the impact of such changes on workers in a healthcare authority in New Zealand, highlighting the problems that any organization might face under such circumstances and pointing to possible methods to cope and remediate employee stress.

    Stress is present to some degree in any organizational context as employees, including managers, grapple with a host of work demands, suggests Roy Smollan of the Department of Management, at Auckland University of Technology. Individuals all have different coping strategies although ultimately not everyone copes. It all depends on the specific stressors, the individual’s personality, emotional intelligence, and their social identity. Moreover, specific stressors need tailored coping strategies, suggests Smollan. He reports that stress is exacerbated when processes such as organizational change exist in a cloud of ambiguity and uncertainty, when those processes are undertaken without consultation with employees, and when changes are either miscommunicated or not communicated at all.

    Smollan’s case study of a New Zealand healthcare authority undergoing major restructuring represents a quite unique qualitative examination of the stresses of work life as those involved are caught up in the tumultuous processes of organizational change. It focused on how individuals attempted to maintain their psychological wellbeing during these changes and learned to cope with the stress. Fundamentally, while many people involved eschewed help from others and relied more on their strengths, in part for fear of appearing weak, accessing support networks was critical for others. For all involved being proactive in problem solving and managing one’s thoughts and emotions during stressful times were nevertheless important for everyone involved.

    “Managers have a key role to play in anticipating when organizational change may elicit stress and in helping those affected to cope with it,” concludes Smollan.


  6. Study explains why stress hormone can prevent disorders after exposure to traumatic event

    September 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona press release:

    People who have suffered from traffic accidents, war combat, terrorist attacks and exposure to other traumatic events have an increased likelihood of developing diseases. These diseases can be psychological and physical, such as heart problems and cancer. The current preventive treatments based on psychological support and drugs are effective in some cases. Unfortunately, these treatments do not work for many individuals. It is also known that the earlier the treatment starts the better to prevent future negative consequences.

    Researchers at the Institut de Neurociències of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (INc-UAB, Spain) have discovered in a study with mice and humans that the Ppm1f (Protein phosphatase 1f) gene expression is one of the most highly regulated after exposure to traumatic stress. Moreover, Ppm1f is associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. The main function of Ppm1f is to regulate the activity of the protein Camk2 (Calmodulin-dependent protein kinase 2), which is key in many processes of the human body such as memory, the heart’s functioning and the immune system.

    According to Dr. Raül Andero Galí, lead researcher in this study, “Once we discovered the relationship between the Ppm1f gene and different psychological disorders after exposure to traumatic stress, we wanted to find an effective drug to prevent these changes and its negative consequences on the brain.” Dr Andero is scientist at the INc-UAB. It was already known that dosing the stress hormone — a glucocorticoid — few hours after exposure to a traumatic event may decrease the likelihood of developing psychological disorders. Thus, the scientists administered the hormone to mice one hour after exposure to stress. “The results confirmed a decrease in the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and also that this effect is because the Ppm1f gene changes are prevented,” explains Dr. Eric Velasco, researcher at the INc-UAB and co-author of the study.

    “The apparent contradiction that the stress hormone decreases the likelihood of developing diseases after exposure to traumatic stress is one of the greatest paradoxes of current medicine” Andero says. “This study sheds light on this paradox and uncovers a way by which the stress hormone could prevent diseases, at least psychologically, through regulation of the Ppm1f gene” he adds.

    Until now, the stress hormone has been administered to people in very few cases. “Our discovery opens the door to a broader application and to the development of treatments aimed specifically at regulating this gene’s functions,” says Antonio Florido, researcher of the INc-UAB and also co-author of the paper.

    The study was carried out in collaboration with the universities of Harvard and Emory (United States). This work is published in Biological Psychiatry, one of the most important journals in Neuroscience. The UAB researchers are currently interested in collaborating with other laboratories and obtaining funding to continue the studies of Ppm1f associated with other disorders such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer in order to verify whether their results are comparable in other diseases and potentially prevent them.


  7. Study suggests stress behaviours may have evolved to lessen aggression

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    Scratching is more than an itch — when it is sparked by stress, it appears to reduce aggression from others and lessen the chance of conflict.

    Scratching can be a sign of stress in many primates, including humans.

    Research by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, is the first to suggest that these stress behaviours can be responded to by others, and that they might have evolved as a communication tool to help social cohesion.

    The research, published in Scientific Reports, raises the question whether human scratching and similar self-directed stress behaviours serve a similar function.

    Jamie said: “Observable stress behaviours could have evolved as a way of reducing aggression in socially complex species of primates. Showing others you are stressed could benefit both the scratcher and those watching, because both parties can then avoid conflict.”

    The research team conducted behavioural observations of 45 rhesus macaques from a group of 200, on the 35-acre island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. The team monitored the naturally occurring social interactions between these animals over a period of eight months.

    The researchers found that scratching in the monkeys was more likely to occur in times of heightened stress, such as being close to high-ranking individuals or to non-friends.

    Stress scratching significantly lowered the likelihood of a scratching monkey being attacked.

    The likelihood of aggression when a high ranking monkey approached a lower ranking monkey was 75 per cent if no scratching took place, and only 50 per cent when the lower ranking monkey scratched.

    Scratching also reduced the chance of aggression between individuals who did not have a strong social bond.

    Jamie said: “As scratching can be a sign of social stress, potential attackers might be avoiding attacking obviously stressed individuals because such individuals could behave unpredictably or be weakened by their stress, meaning an attack could be either risky or unnecessary.

    “By revealing stress to others, we are helping them predict what we might do, so the situation becomes more transparent. Transparency ultimately reduces the need for conflict, which benefits everyone and promotes a more socially cohesive group.”

    The researchers expect the findings will lead to a better understanding of stress and the evolution of stress in humans as well as how we manage stress in captive animals.


  8. Study finds active ingredient in sugarcane may help with stress-related insomnia

    September 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Tsukuba press release:

    Everyone empirically knows that stressful events certainly affect sound sleep. Scientists in the Japanese sleep institute found that the active component rich in sugarcane and other natural products may ameliorate stress and help having sound sleep.

    In today’s world ever-changing environment, demanding job works and socio-economic factors enforces sleep deprivation in human population. Sleep deprivation induces tremendous amount of stress, and stress itself is one of the major factors responsible for sleep loss or difficulty in falling into sleep. Currently available sleeping pills does not address stress component and often have severe side effects. Sleep loss is also associated with certain other diseases including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, depression, anxiety, mania deficits etc.

    The research group led by Mahesh K. Kaushik and Yoshihiro Urade of the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine (WPI-IIIS), University of Tsukuba, found that octacosanol reduces stress and restores stress-affected sleep back to normal.

    Octacosanol is abundantly present in various everyday foods such as sugarcane (thin whitish layer on surface), rice bran, wheat germ oil, bee wax etc. The crude extract is policosanol, where octacosanol is the major constituent. Policosanol and octacosanol have already been used in humans for various other medical conditions.

    In the current study, authors made an advancement and investigated the effect of octacosanol on sleep regulation in mildly stressed mice by oral administration. Octacosanol reduced corticosterone level in blood plasma, which is a stress marker. The octacosanol-administered mice also showed normal sleep, which was previously disturbed due to stress. They therefore claim that the octacosanol mitigates stress in mice and restores stress-affected sleep to normal in mice. The sleep induced by octacosanol was similar to natural sleep and physiological in nature. However, authors also claimed that octacosanol does not affect sleep in normal animals. These results clearly demonstrated that octacosanol is an active compound that has potential to reduce stress and to increase sleep, and it could potentially be useful for the therapy of insomnia caused by stress. Octacosanol can be considered safe for human use as a therapy, because it is a food-based compound and believed to show no side effects.

    Octacosanol/policosanol supplements are used by humans for functions such as lipid metabolism, cholesterol lowering or to provide strength. However, well-planned clinical studies need to be carried out to confirm its effect on humans for its stress-mitigation and sleep-inducing potentials. “Future studies include the identification of target brain area of octacosanol, its BBB permeability, and the mechanism via which octacosanol lowers stress,” Kaushik says.


  9. Study suggests shared custody equals less stress for children

    September 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Stockholm University press release:

    Children who live full time with one parent are more likely to feel stressed than children in shared custody situations. The benefit holds regardless of the level of conflict between the parents or between parent and child. These are the results of a new study from Stockholm University’s Demography Unit.

    “The explanation may be that children, who spend most of the time away from one parent, lose resources like relatives, friends and money. Previous research has also shown that children may worry about the parent they rarely meet, which can make them more stressed,” says Jani Turunen, researcher in Demography at Stockholm University and Centre for research on child and adolescent mental health at Karlstad University.

    The fact that children who live full time with one parent are worse psychologically than children in shared physical custody has been previously shown, but this study is the first to look specifically at stress. Shared physical custody is not to be confounded with shared legal custody. Shared legal custody only gives both parents the legal right to decisions about the child’s upbringing, school choices, religion, and so on. Shared physical custody means that the child actually lives for equal, or near equal, time with both parents, alternating between separate households.

    The data for this study are from the Surveys of Living Conditions in Sweden, ULF, from 2001-2003, combined with registry data. Sweden is a country that is often considered a forerunner in emerging family forms and behaviors like divorce, childbearing and family reconstitution.

    “This means that the results of this study are relevant to today’s situation in many European countries, since their situation today might be comparable to the one in Sweden 15 years ago,” says Jani Turunen.

    In the survey, a total of 807 children with different types of living arrangements answered to questions about how often they experience stress and how well, or badly, they get along with their parents. The parents have answered how well they get along with their former partner.

    The study shows that children living with only one of the parents have a higher likelihood of experiencing stress several times a week, than children in shared physical custody. This generally applies even if the parents have a poor relationship, or if the children don’t get along with either of them.

    “There has previously been a concern that shared physical custody could be an unstable living situation, that can lead to children becoming more stressed. But those who pointed to it earlier have built their concerns on theoretical assumptions, rather than empirical research,” says Jani Turunen.

    What probably makes children in shared physical custody less stressed is that they can have an active relationship with both their parents, which previous research has shown to be important for the children’s well-being. The relationship between the child and both of its parents becomes stronger, the child finds the relationship to be better and the parents can both exercise more active parenting.

    “In other words, living with both parents does not mean instability for the children. It’s just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and a good contact with both parents equals to stability,” says Jani Turunen.


  10. Burdens of spousal caregiving alleviated by appreciation

    September 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    The fact that spouses often become caregivers for their ailing partners is quite common in American life — and few roles are more stressful.

    Yet helping behaviors, which are at the core of caregiving, typically relieve stress, according to Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology.

    When discussing spousal care, the draining demands of caregiving and the uplifting effects of helping stand in apparent contrast to one another.

    But recent research shows that the time caregivers spend actively helping a loved one can improve the caregiver’s sense of well-being — and now, Poulin, an expert in empathy, human generosity and stress, is part of a research team that has published a study exploring why that’s the case.

    Their research points to the specific conditions necessary to alleviate the burdens of spousal caregiving.

    Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver’s mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner,” he says.

    “These conclusions are important because we know that spousal caregiving is an enormous burden, emotionally, physically and economically,” he says. “If we can find ways for community resources to help create those conditions we might be able to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

    The findings of the study, led by Joan Monin, Yale School of Public Health, Stephanie Brown, Stony Brook University, Kenneth Langa, University of Michigan, and Poulin, appear in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology.

    Poulin says more than 30 years of research shows that being a caregiver is among the most stressful, emotionally burdensome and physically demanding roles a person can take on. Spouses who are caregivers show decreased immune function, increased signs of physiological stress and are at greater risk for physical and mental illness.

    Yet other studies, including much of Poulin’s own research, suggest that the act of providing help to somebody is typically stress-relieving and is associated with better emotional and physical well-being.

    “The problem is that when you’re a caregiver, not all of your time is spent helping,” says Poulin. “Sometimes all you can do is witness the person’s state while being passively on duty.”

    But previous research confirmed that the act of helping in this context was associated with improving the caretakers’ well-being, a finding that was true even when general caregiving was broken downs into tasks, like feeding or bathing.

    “This is what we wanted to get at,” says Poulin. “We knew that something about being helpful is good in these circumstances. But why? Is it just being active? Is doing something better than doing nothing? Or is it that doing something to improve another person’s well-being is what matters?”

    The research team conducted two studies with spouses caring for partners with chronic pain.

    In the first study, 73 participants reported caregiving activity and their accompanying emotions in three-hour intervals. This allowed the researchers to look at the amount of help given and how much that help pleased the spouse and subsequently affected the caregiver.

    The second study involved 43 caregivers who completed a diary at the end of the day that detailed the help they provided and the appreciation they received.

    The findings suggest that spouses caring for a partner feel happier and report fewer physical symptoms when they believe their help is appreciated.

    “Importantly, this study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it is important to target emotional communication between spouses in daily support interactions to improve psychological well-being in the context of chronic conditions and disability,” the authors write in their paper.

    It’s an important point to consider, not just today, but for the future, notes Poulin.

    “As the baby boomers continue to age, this phenomenon of spousal caregiving will continue to increase,” he says.