1. Study suggests blue lighting helps us to relax faster after an argument than white lighting

    November 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Granada press release:

    Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), in collaboration with the School for Special Education San Rafael (Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God, Granada, Spain) have proven, by means of an objective evaluation using electrophysiological measurements, that blue lighting accelerates the relaxation process after acute psychosocial stress in comparison with conventional white lighting.

    Said stress is a kind of short-term stress (acute stress) that occurs during social or interpersonal relationships, for example while arguing with a friend or when someone pressures you to finish a certain task as soon as possible.

    The researchers, which belong to the BCI Lab (Brain-Computer Interface Lab) at the University of Granada, note that psychosocial stress produces some physiological responses that can be measured by means of bio-signals. That stress is very common and negatively affects people’s health and quality of life.

    For their work, whose results have been published in the PlosOne journal, the researchers made twelve volunteers to be stressed and then perform a relaxation session within the multisensory stimulation room at the School for Special Education San Rafael.

    In said room the participants lied down with no stimulus but a blue (group 1) or white (group 2) lighting. Diverse bio-signals, such as heart rate and brain activity, were measured throughout the whole session (by means of an electrocardiogram and an electroencephalogram, respectively).

    The results showed that blue lighting accelerates the relaxation process, in comparison with conventional white lighting.


  2. Study looks at how well we perceive other people’s stress levels in the workplace

    November 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Friends of Tel Aviv University press release:

    A new Tel Aviv University study finds that people often project their own experiences with stress onto their colleagues and employees, causing miscommunication and, often, missed opportunities.

    “This study is the first to show that our own psychological mindset determines how we judge other peoples’ responses to stress — specifically, whether we perceive stress as positive or negative,” said principal investigator Prof. Sharon Toker of TAU’s Coller School of Management.

    The research was published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

    The positives and negatives of stress

    “This research informs the way managers assess their employees’ ability to take on different workloads. It may also inform our relationships with our spouses — or with our children,” Prof. Toker says. “For example, a typical ‘tiger mom’ is sure that stress is a good thing. She may simply not see how burned out her child may be.”

    Experiments conducted by Prof. Toker and researchers Prof. Daniel Heller and Nili Ben-Avi, also of TAU’s Coller School of Management, found that a person’s individual stress mindset colors the way he or she will perceive a colleague or employee’s health, work productivity and degree of burnout.

    “If a manager perceives that a certain employee doesn’t suffer from stress, that manager will be more likely to consider the employee worthy of promotion,” Prof. Toker says. “But because the manager believes that stress is a positive quality that leads to self-sufficiency, the manager will also be less likely to offer assistance if the employee needs it,” Prof. Toker says.

    Prof. Toker and her colleagues recruited 377 American employees for an online “stress-at-work” questionnaire. Participants were asked to read a description of “Ben,” a fictitious employee who works long hours, has a managerial position and needs to multitask. The employees then rated his burnout levels and completed a stress mindset questionnaire about Ben.

    The more participants saw stress as positive and enhancing, the more they perceived Ben as experiencing less burnout and consequently rated him as more worthy of being promoted,” Prof. Toker says.

    Changing minds

    The researchers also wanted to see whether they could change people’s perceptions of stress and consequently change the way they perceive other peoples’ stress. They conducted a series of further experiments among 600 employed Israelis and Americans to determine whether their stress mindset can be cultivated or changed.

    The researchers randomly assigned the employees to “enhancing” or “debilitating” stress mindset groups of 120-350 people. Using a technique called “priming” — prompting participants to think of the word “stress” in either positive or negative terms — the participants were asked to write about past stress experiences in either a “positive/enhancing” or “negative/debilitating” way. They were then asked to read a description of Ben’s workload and assess Ben’s burnout, rate of productivity and psychosomatic symptoms.

    Participants were also asked whether Ben should be promoted and whether they would be willing to help him with his workload.

    “Study participants who were primed to have a positive/enhancing stress mindset rated Ben as suffering less from stress-related symptoms and were consequently more likely to recommend Ben for promotion. They were also less likely to offer him help,” Prof. Heller says. “But those primed to feel as though stress was debilitating/negative felt that Ben was more burned out and consequently less fit to be promoted.”

    “Your stress mindset will affect your judgement of other people’s stress responses,” Ben-Avi concludes. “But we have shown that even if stress affects you positively, it can distort the way you see your colleagues, your employees, your spouses, even your own children. We should be very careful about assessing other people’s stress levels.”


  3. Study suggests hair cortisol levels predict which mothers are more likely to suffer postpartum depression

    November 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Granada press release:

    Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), who belong to the Brain, Mind and Behavior Research Center (CIMCYC, from its abbreviation in Spanish) and the Faculty of Psychology, have proven that cortisol levels (a steroid hormone secreted as a response to stress) present in the hair of pregnant women during the first or third trimesters of pregnancy may indicate which of them are more likely to suffer postpartum depression.

    Their work, published in the PLoS ONE journal, showed that hair cortisol levels in women who developed postpartum depression were higher throughout pregnancy than those seen in women who hadn’t developed it, being that difference statistically more significant during the first and third trimesters.

    The UGR researchers carried out their study doing a follow-up on 44 pregnant women throughout the whole gestation period and after giving birth. Each trimester the mothers underwent a series of tests that evaluated their stress and psychopathological symptoms while simultaneously taking hair samples from which the researchers extracted the cortisol corresponding to the last three months.

    The following days after labor the researchers evaluated the mothers’ emotional state in order to assess who among them had developed postpartum depression.

    Quarterly psychopathological symptoms

    Additionally, the results of the study showed that the participants which developed postpartum depression showed higher levels of somatization during the first trimester. During the second trimester they showed higher levels of somatization, obsession-compulsion, depression and anxiety, and during the third trimester they showed higher levels of somatization and pregnancy-specific stress. Therefore, all those symptoms along with higher levels of cortisol would be indicators of a future postpartum depression.

    As María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, lead researcher of the project says, the consequences of those results are very important in the prevention of postpartum depression, “since they show that there are various altered psychological and hormonal variables throughout the whole gestation period in comparison to those women who will not suffer postpartum depression. Detecting those differences is the key to anticipate the psychological state of the mother as well as the consequences for the baby that said state could mean.”

    This study belongs to the GESTASTRESS research project, in the research excellence framework of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Its primary goal has been to assess the effects of psychological stress on the mother throughout the whole gestation period as well as on birth variables, and on the baby’s stress and neurodevelopment.


  4. How challenges change the way you think

    November 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Research published today in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that challenging situations make it harder to understand where you are and what’s happening around you. A team of researchers showed participants video clips of a positive, a negative and a neutral situation. After watching the challenging clips — whether positive or negative — the participants performed worse on tests measuring their unconscious ability to acquire information about where and when things happen. This suggests that challenging situations cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

    Previous research suggests that long-term memories formed under stress lack the context and peripheral details encoded by the hippocampus, making false alarms and reflexive reactions more likely. These context details are necessary for situating yourself in space and time, so struggling to acquire them has implications for decision-making in the moment as well as in memory formation.

    The research team, led by Thomas Maran, Marco Furtner and Pierre Sachse, investigated the short-term effects of challenging experiences on acquiring these context details. The team also investigated whether experiences coded as positive produced the same response as those coded as negative.

    “We aimed to make this change measurable on a behavioral level, to draw conclusions on how behavior in everyday life and challenging situations is affected by variations in arousal,” Thomas Maran explains.

    The researchers predicted that study participants would be less able to acquire spatial and sequential context after watching challenging clips, and that their performance would worsen the same way faced with either a positive or a negative clip. To test this, they used clips of film footage used previously to elicit reactions in stress studies: one violent scene (which participants experienced as negative), one sex scene (which participants experienced as positive), and one neutral control scene.

    Immediately after watching the clips, two groups of participants performed tasks designed to test their ability to acquire either spatial or sequential context. Both the sex scene and violent scene disrupted participants’ ability to memorize where objects had been and notice patterns in two different tasks, compared to the neutral scene. This supports the hypothesis that challenging situations — positive or negative — cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

    So if challenging situations decrease the ability to pick up on context cues, how does this happen? The researchers suggest that the answer may lie in the hippocampus region of the brain — although they caution that since no neurophysiological techniques were applied in this study, this can’t be proven. Since existing evidence supports the idea that the hippocampus is deeply involved in retrieving and reconstructing spatial and temporal details, downgrading this function when faced with a potentially dangerous situation could stop this context acquisition and achieve the effect seen in this behavioral study. Reflexive reactions are less complex and demanding, and might stop individuals from making decisions based on unreliable information from unpredictable surroundings.

    Changes in cognition during high arousal states play an important role in psychopathology,” Thomas Maran explains, outlining his hopes for the future use of this research. He considers that the evidence provided by this study may have important therapeutic and forensic applications. It also gives a better basis for understanding reactions to challenging situations — from witnessing a crime to fighting on a battlefield — and the changes in the brain that make those reactions happen.


  5. Study examines CBT use for chronic pain

    by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health press release:

    By teaching patients better strategies for coping with chronic pain, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a valuable treatment alternative for the millions of Americans taking opioids for noncancer pain, according to an article in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    “Cognitive behavioral therapy is a useful and empirically based method of treatment for pain disorders that can decrease reliance on the excessive use of opiates,” write Drs. Muhammad Hassan Majeed of Natchaug Hospital, Mansfield Center, Conn., and Donna M. Sudak of Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia. They discuss evidence supporting the use of CBT to avoid or reduce the use of opioids for chronic pain.

    CBT Offers Effective, Safer Alternative to Opioids for Chronic Pain

    Rising use of opioid (sometimes called opiate) medications to treat chronic noncancer pain is a major contributor to the US opioid crisis. But despite the aggressive marketing and prescribing of these powerful painkillers, there has been little change in the amount and severity of pain reported by Americans over the past decade. “There is no evidence that supports the use of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain for more than one year, and chronic use increases the serious risks of misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose, and death,” Drs. Majeed and Sudak write.

    They believe that CBT is an important alternative to opioids for treatment of chronic pain. The goal of CBT is to help patients change the way they think about and manage their pain. The idea is not that pain (in the absence of tissue damage) “is all in your head” — but rather that all pain is “in the head.” Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients understand that pain is a stressor and, like other stressors, is something they can adapt to and cope with.

    Interventions may include relaxation training, scheduling pleasant activities, cognitive restructuring, and guided exercise — all in the context of an “empathic and validating” relationship with the therapist. These interventions “have the potential to relieve pain intensity, improve the quality of life, and improve physical and emotional function,” according to the authors.

    “Therapy helps the patient see that emotional and psychological factors influence perception of pain and behaviors that are associated with having pain,” Drs. Majeed and Sudak write. “Therapy…puts in place cognitive and behavioral strategies to help patients cope more successfully.”

    The authors cite several recent original studies and review articles supporting the effectiveness of CBT and other alternative approaches for chronic pain. Studies suggest that CBT has a “top-down” effect on pain control and perception of painful stimuli. It can also normalize reductions in the brain’s gray matter volume, which are thought to result from the effects of chronic stress.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy is moderately effective in reducing pain scores, while avoiding or reducing the opioid risks of overuse, addiction, overdose, and death. It can be used as a standalone treatment; in combination with other treatments, including effective non-opioid medications; or as part of efforts to reduce the opioid doses required to control chronic pain.

    Unfortunately, CBT and other nondrug treatments are underused due to unfamiliarity, time pressure, patient demands, ease of prescribing medications, and low reimbursement rates. Drs. Majeed and Sudak note that significant investment of resources will be needed to train practitioners and to widely integrate the use of CBT into chronic pain treatment. The authors suggest that the President’s Commission on the opioid crisis might fund such training programs as a preventive strategy to curb opioid abuse.

    “There is a need for a paradigm shift from a biomedical to a biopsychosocial model for effective pain treatment and prevention of opioid use disorder,” Dr. Majeed comments. “Increased use of CBT as an alternative to opioids may help to ease the clinical, financial, and social burden of pain disorders on society.”


  6. Significant financial stress associated with 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European Society of Cardiology press release:

    Significant financial stress is associated with a 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack, according to research presented at the 18th Annual Congress of the South African Heart Association.

    The SA Heart Congress 2017 is being held from 9 to 12 November in Johannesburg.

    “The role of psychosocial factors in causing disease is a neglected area of study in South Africa, perhaps because there are so many other pressing health challenges such as tuberculosis and HIV,” said lead author Dr Denishan Govender, associate lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

    “The INTERHEART study showed that psychosocial factors are independently associated with acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) in Africa but as far as we are aware there are no other published local data,” said last author Professor Pravin Manga, professor of cardiology, University of the Witwatersrand.

    This study included 106 patients with acute myocardial infarction who presented to a large public hospital in Johannesburg. A control group of 106 patients without cardiac disease was matched for age, sex and race. All participants completed a questionnaire about depression, anxiety, stress, work stress, and financial stress in the previous month. The Likert scale was used to grade the experience of each condition.

    Regarding financial stress, patients were graded with no financial stress if they were coping financially; mild financial stress if they were coping financially but needed added support; moderate financial stress if they had an income but were in financial distress; and significant financial stress if they had no income and at times struggled to meet basic needs.

    Levels of psychosocial conditions were compared between groups and used to calculate associations with having a heart attack.

    Self-reported stress levels were common, with 96% of heart attack patients reporting any level of stress, and 40% reporting severe stress levels. There was a three-fold increased risk of myocardial infarction if a patient had experienced any level of depression (from mild to extremely severe) in the previous month compared to those with no depression.

    Both work stress and financial stress were associated with a higher risk of acute myocardial infarction. The odds of myocardial infarction was 5.6 times higher in patients with moderate or severe work stress compared to those with minimal or no stress. Patients with significant financial stress had a 13-fold higher odds of having a myocardial infarction.

    Dr Govender said: “Our study suggests that psychosocial aspects are important risk factors for acute myocardial infarction. Often patients are counselled about stress after a heart attack but there needs to be more emphasis prior to an event. Few doctors ask about stress, depression or anxiety during a general physical and this should become routine practice, like asking about smoking. Just as we provide advice on how to quit smoking, patients need information on how to fight stress.”

    Professor Manga said: “There is growing recognition that many developing countries are experiencing an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases of lifestyle such as myocardial infarction, and South Africa is no exception. Our study shows that psychosocial aspects are an area of cardiovascular prevention that deserves more attention.”

    Dr David Jankelow, Chairman of the SA Heart 2017 Congress, commented: “We know that the depressed cardiac patient is at greater risk. We as clinicians need to identify them much earlier, so that they can be referred for appropriate intervention. Cardiac rehabilitation together with counselling and reassurance will play an important role as well.”

    Professor Fausto Pinto, ESC immediate past president and course director of the ESC programme in South Africa, said: “Psychosocial factors including stress at work, depression and anxiety contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and having a worse prognosis. European prevention guidelines say that psychosocial risk factor assessment should be considered in people with, or at high risk of, cardiovascular disease to identify possible barriers to lifestyle change or adherence to medication.”


  7. Researchers develop psychotherapy treatment for refugees’ trauma

    by Ashley

    From the Bielefeld University press release:

    They are suffering from nightmares, flashbacks, depression, or anxiety disorders: refugees coming to Germany from conflict areas are frequently traumatized. ‘Realistic estimates state that up to 40 per cent of refugees have mental problems. Hence, for the period since 2015, we are talking about several hundred thousand people who are in real need of psychological support,’ says Professor Dr. Frank Neuner from Bielefeld University. The psychologist is one of the team responsible for developing ‘Narrative Exposure Therapy’ (NET). It has been applied over the last 15 years in conflict zones from East Africa to Sri Lanka. What is special about this therapy is that it shows success after only a few sessions. In a new ‘research_tv’ programme at Bielefeld University, Frank Neuner talks about NET and explains the consequences of leaving refugees without treatment.

    ‘I believe that a large part of the general population is willing to accept that we now need to invest substantially in dealing with these traumatized refugees and that the state must make money available for this,’ says Frank Neuner. ‘Due to the threats in their home countries, many refugees will be staying with us for a long time. By helping them now, we shall be warding off problems that will otherwise confront us unavoidably in 20 or 30 years time.’

    Neuner designed and tested NET together with Dr. Maggie Schauer and Professor Dr. Thomas Elbert from the University of Konstanz. By working with this method, hundreds of child soldiers, victims of political violence, and war refugees have been able to process their traumatic experiences.

    The key principle of NET is a highly valued practice in every culture: telling stories. ‘Whenever we have gone through an emotional experience, we try to tell stories. This is how we try to make what we have experienced comprehensible to others,’ says Neuner. ‘Refugees have experienced a whole series of traumatic events. We talk together with them about their entire life history and build up a kind of autobiography that enables them to embed the single traumatic experiences in a meaningful context and work out the significance they have in their own personal lives.’ Together with their therapist, traumatized persons work their way repeatedly and chronologically through the negative and positive events in their lives. ‘The idea is to historicize the traumatic events. This permits closure, so that they no longer threaten the present.’

    To deliver therapy to people in crisis zones, Neuner together with colleagues from the University of Konstanz and further supporters founded the aid organisation ‘Vivo’. It is training lay therapists in countries such as Sri Lanka, Ruanda, Uganda, and the Congo. Unlike Germany, the health systems of these countries do not provide access to professional therapists. ‘However, even Germany does not have enough therapists to treat all the refugees with traumatic disorders. Many people in Germany already have to wait months for a treatment slot with a therapist,’ says Neuner. ‘One step towards a solution could be to give NET training to refugees and migrants here in Germany and to employ them within a stepped care model supervised by psychotherapists. However, the German legal situation does not permit this at present.’

    NET is already being practiced by professional therapists in Germany. Bielefeld University’s psychotherapy clinic is applying the method in therapy studies not only refugees with but also with survivors of child abuse, rape victims, and former members of the German military. The scientific further education centres at Bielefeld University and the University of Konstanz are qualifying psychologists, medical doctors, and psychotherapists to work with NET.


  8. Study suggests mindfulness may help mothers cope with stress when their babies have a heart condition

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia press release:

    Mindfulness may offer an active coping mechanism for mothers faced with the stress of having a newborn diagnosed with congenital heart disease (CHD). Mindfulness, which aims to increase a person’s awareness and acceptance of daily experiences, is currently used in a variety of healthcare settings as a potentially effective skill for stress reduction, emotion, affect and attention regulation.

    A team of nurse-researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) published a study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing in which they gathered perspectives on coping mechanisms from focus groups with 14 mothers of critically ill infants, and explored the feasibility of mindfulness as a stress-reduction technique.

    “Mothers of infants with complex congenital heart disease are exposed to increased stress, which has been associated with numerous adverse outcomes,” said Barbara Medoff-Cooper, PhD, RN FAAN, principal investigator and nurse scientist in the Cardiac Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and at Penn Nursing. “The coping mechanisms these mothers use critically impacts the family’s adaptation to the illness, and most likely infant outcomes as well.”

    “Thus far, parental interventions in the CICU generally are informative or educational, aiming to increase parental abilities to actively manage the caretaking demands of an infant with CHD,” said Nadya Golfenshtein, PhD, RN, lead author of the study and a researcher at Penn Nursing. “Mindfulness can be a helpful tool that assists mothers during an incredibly stressful time for them, and for their family by allowing them to pause and be present in the moment rather than wishing something different was happening or worrying about tomorrow.”

    The researchers collected data during focus groups between July 2015 and March 2016. The sessions included a short introduction to mindfulness as a stress reduction intervention, led by a moderator who is a psychotherapist experienced in group formats.

    “In the study, mothers described the post-diagnostic period, surgery and the cardiac intensive care unit stay as extremely stressful,” said Amy J. Lisanti, PhD, RN, CCNS, CCRN-K, nurse researcher at CHOP and NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “Many expressed concerns regarding the post-discharge period when they would need to independently handle their infant’s condition. Their increased stress often led them to feel out of control, lethargic and not like themselves. They acknowledged the importance of stress reduction, recognizing that relief from stress could help them sleep better, recharge energy, focus and think clearly.”

    After experiencing a brief guided session of mindfulness in a focus group, one mother said, “Most meditation is about clear your mind and lose focus, but this is to focus on now. I think it works for me, I was never able to do the clear mind thing. This is more accessible to me.” Another noted, “This is something I’m doing for myself, remembering I’m part of this too. Sometimes you are on autopilot, making sure everyone else is ok. Yes, this is a moment when I’m doing something for myself.”

    The mothers agreed that mindfulness should start early, preferably immediately after the prenatal CHD diagnosis. That way, they felt, that they would have time to learn and practice the skill by the time the baby is born. There was also a general agreement that the worst time to begin the practice is around surgery, as that is an overwhelming time and mothers are too busy to learn a new skill. The mothers preferred engaging in mindfulness in a private, quiet room as the sounds of the CICU stress them and may prevent them from relaxing.

    “We hope to design a program that draws from these findings and more research on mindfulness meditation is needed in a larger cohort of mothers,” added Golfenshtein.


  9. Locus coeruleus activity linked with hyperarousal in PTSD

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    A new study in Biological Psychiatry has linked signs of heightened arousal and reactivity — a core symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — to overactivity of the locus coeruleus (LC), a brain region that mediates arousal and reactivity. By combining bodily responses and brain imaging data, the new paper by Dr. Christoph Mueller-Pfeiffer at the University of Zurich, Switzerland and colleagues is the first to provide direct human evidence for a theory over 30 years old. Pinpointing the origin of symptoms in the brain is a major step in efforts to improve treatment options for patients with the disorder.

    “The authors are to be congratulated on imaging this part of the brain,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “Demonstrating the presence of LC hyperactivity in PTSD sets the stage for clarifying the relationship of LC activity to stress response, resilience, PTSD symptoms, and the treatment of PTSD,” he added.

    In the study, first author Christoph Naegeli, also of University of Zurich, and colleagues analyzed 54 participants who had been exposed to trauma, about half of whom developed PTSD. When the participants listened to random bursts of white noise, those who were diagnosed with PTSD had more frequent eye blinks, and increased heart rate, skin conductance and pupil area responses — indicators of the body’s autonomic response — than participants without PTSD.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, Naegeli and colleagues found that patients with PTSD had larger brain responses in the LC and other regions wired to the LC that control alertness and motor preparation. According to Mueller-Pfeiffer, the increased brain activity and autonomic responses measured in the participants provide a biologically plausible explanation for hypervigilance and exaggerated startle responses in PTSD. However, LC activation was not directly associated with arousal symptoms. Thus, direct links between LC hyperactivity and PTSD symptom severity still need to be demonstrated.

    The study may also reveal new avenues for treating these common and disabling symptoms of PTSD. “Our results suggest that targeting locus coeruleus system hyperactivity with new pharmacological or psychotherapeutic interventions are approaches worthy of further investigation,” said Dr. Mueller-Pfeiffer.


  10. Study suggests poor social skills may be harmful to health

    November 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Those who struggle in social situations may be at greater risk for mental and physical health problems, according to a new study from the University of Arizona.

    That’s because people with poor social skills tend to experience more stress and loneliness, both of which can negatively impact health, said study author Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication.

    The study, published in the journal Health Communication, is among the first to link social skills to physical, not just mental, health.

    “We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” Segrin said. “But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health. Two variables — loneliness and stress — appear to be the glue that bind poor social skills to health. People with poor social skills have high levels of stress and loneliness in their lives.”

    The study is based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 775 people, age 18 to 91, who were asked to respond online to questions designed to measure social skills, stress, loneliness, and mental and physical health.

    Social skills refer to the communication skills that allow people to interact effectively and appropriately with others. Segrin focused on four specific indicators of social skills: the ability to provide emotional support to others; self-disclosure, or the ability to share personal information with others; negative assertion skills, or the ability to stand up to unreasonable requests from others; and relationship initiation skills, or the ability to introduce yourself to others and get to know them.

    Study participants who had deficits in those skills reported more stress, more loneliness, and poorer overall mental and physical health, Segrin said.

    While the negative effects of stress on the body have been known for a long time, loneliness is a more recently recognized health risk factor.

    “We started realizing about 15 years ago that loneliness is actually a pretty serious risk for health problems. It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise,” Segrin said.

    Segrin likens the experience of loneliness to the way people feel when they’re in a hurry to get out the door and can’t find their keys — except the feeling never truly goes away.

    “When we lose our keys, 99 percent of the time we find them, the stress goes away, we get in the car and it’s over,” he said. “Lonely people experience that same sort of frantic search — in this case, not for car keys but for meaningful relationships — and they don’t have the ability to escape from that stress. They’re not finding what they’re looking for, and that stress of frantically searching takes a toll on them.”

    The good news, Segrin says, is that social skills have proved to be amenable to intervention.

    “For people who really want to improve their social skills and work on them, there’s therapy, there’s counseling and there is social skills training,” he said.

    Unfortunately, however, many people who have poor social skills don’t realize it, Segrin said.

    “One of the problems with possessing poor social skills is lack of social awareness, so even if they’re not getting the date, they’re not getting the job, they’re getting in arguments with co-workers or their spouse, they don’t see themselves as a problem,” Segrin said. “They’re walking around with this health risk factor and they’re not even aware of it.”

    Where Do Social Skills Come From?

    Social skills are mostly learned over time, beginning in your family of origin and continuing throughout life. Yet, some scientific evidence suggests that certain traits, such as sociability or social anxiousness, may be at least partly hereditary, said Segrin, who has studied social skills for 31 years.

    While Segrin doesn’t address it in his current study, he says that technology, for all its benefits, may be taking a serious toll on social skills, especially in young people.

    “The use of technology — texting, in particular — is probably one of the biggest impediments for developing social skills in young people today,” he said. “Everything is so condensed and parsed out in sound bites, and that’s not the way that human beings for thousands of years have communicated. It makes young people more timid when they’re face-to-face with others, and they’re not sure what to say what to do. There’s no social interaction, and I fear that’s really hurting young people.”

    Parents can help with their children’s social skills — and, in turn, their health — not only by limiting screen time but also by making sure children are regularly exposed to situations that require in-person social interaction, Segrin said.

    “It could be a summer camp, a sporting program, a church group — something where they can hang out with peers and just talk and do things together,” he said.

    Future research, Segrin said, should explore how other aspects of social skills might impact health. He also is interested in looking at how social skills impact those struggling with chronic illness.

    “I want to get the word out about how valuable good communication skills are,” Segrin said. “They will not just benefit you in your social life but they’ll benefit your physical health.”