How the body responds to acute psychological stress can predict future health and disease outcomes, with those at both the highest and lowest ends at greatest risk, according to a new Deakin University study.
The study’s lead author Dr Anne Turner, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), said her research had unearthed the importance of a just-right ‘Goldilocks’ response to psychological stress, with danger in a too exaggerated or subdued reaction.
The review – set to be published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology – crunched the numbers from 47 international studies into acute stress responses published over the past 25 years, evaluating data collected from more than 32,000 people.
It showed those in the top range, with the most exaggerated responses to psychological stress, were linked to an increased risk of future cardiovascular disease. While those in the bottom range, with the most subdued responses, were linked to an increased risk of future mental health issues and obesity.
“We found intermediate, or medium-sized stress responses were the most adaptive, meaning that they had the lowest risk of future adverse health and disease outcomes,” Dr Turner said.
“This is the first research to bring together a variety of stress responses in the one review, examining both nervous system responses – indicated by heart rate and blood pressure – and endocrine system responses – indicated by levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“Activation of both systems is integral to our response to physical stress in order to prepare the body to deal with the threat encountered and return the body to a steady state once the threat has passed.
“Unlike physical stressors, psychological stressors don’t require that physical fight or flight response that kicks in, but our body still reacts in a similar way, which can take a physiological toll.”
Dr Turner said evaluating the health effects of psychological stress was increasingly important in a busy, modern world.
“Unfortunately, modern life and stress seem to go hand in hand. The average person is facing a number of psychological stressors, as they juggle work, family, and other pressures,” she said.
Dr Turner said further research must now turn to exploring what made people an ‘exaggerated’ or ‘subdued’ responder to stress, allowing for better predictions of who is at risk of particular health issues and how that could be mitigated.
“Some potential drivers we’re looking at include physical activity levels, fat carried around the waist, early life adversity, and genetic makeup,” she said.
“I’m interested in investigating if our stress responses are set in stone or can be modified. Potential lifestyle interventions that could be helpful in managing stress responses include maintaining a healthy diet, being physically active, getting enough sleep, maintaining strong social connections and looking after our mental health through things like mindfulness and even exposure to green spaces.”