The Effects of Stress Begin in the Womb and Continue till Death (May 11, 2016)

The “Open Lectures” program initiated by Boğaziçi University in April 2016 to bring the latest scientific developments to the public presented a seminar on “The Effects of Stress on the Nervous System” by Assistant Professor Elif Aysimi Duman on May 10.

The “Open Lectures” held at Akatlar Cultural Center in collaboration with Beşiktaş Municipality will continue with a seminar on “Language, Brain and Evolution” by Associate Prof. Mine Nakipoğlu, to be followed by Assist. Prof. İnci Ayhan’s lecture titled “The Perception of Time”.

Elif Aysimi Duman is an Asst. Prof. at Boğaziçi University Psychology Department. Her main area of research is the genetic-environmental interactions underlying behavior.  In her studies, she focuses on the effects of traumatic events and genetic factors on individuals’ reactions to stress and their susceptibility to psychological problems.  We talked with Elif Aysimi Duran about stress and its effects.

Is stress always bad?  Can we make a distinction between good stress and bad stress?

Stress can generally be defined as the physiological reaction of the body to a real or imagined factor, or a stressor, which changes the body’s balance.  Throughout our lives, we are exposed to various stressors and we must be able to react to those stressors in order to survive and adapt to the environment. In other words, it is not bad to react to stress; on the contrary, not showing a reaction in that situation would be a problem.  In general, when we say “good stress” we mean stress created by exciting, short-term situations that the person can cope with. On the other hand, by “bad stress” we mean stress caused by events that exhaust an individual’s resources, the kind of situations that he cannot cope with or escape. These situations generally last longer.  So actually what is good or bad is not stress itself but the characteristics and the perception of the situation that causes stress.

What happens in our body when we are under stress?  How is our health affected?

Once an event is perceived as stressful, our autonomic nervous system starts working within seconds.  For example, imagine on a snowy day your car suddenly skids while you are driving. The pupils of your eyes become larger, your breathing and pulse rate accelerate; these are all related to the autonomic nervous system.  Even when we imagine the situation now, we see these changes in our bodies.  Then, there is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which secretes cortisol, also called the stress hormone.  When both of these two systems begin to work, the body starts to fight against the stressor.  During this process, while the systems needed for this fight work fast, the systems that are not needed are suppressed.  When the stressful situation is over, the stress systems close, and the other systems in the body go back to their usual functions.  What causes behavioral problems and illnesses is that when these systems too hard and too fast, they wear out the other systems.  By “wearing out” I mean both the structural changes such as loss of cells and functional changes such as the secretion of different chemicals. All of these factors disrupt the functioning of those systems.

Stress triggers many illnesses from the flu to Alzheimer’s

Since stress systems have an impact on the functioning of almost all systems in the body, they pave the way for many illnesses, from stress-related heart problems to eating disorders, from depression to Alzheimer’s.  In other words, stress triggers many illnesses.  For example, we know that stress suppresses the immune system, which increases the risk of illnesses like colds or the flue; it can also cause more serious diseases like autoimmune diseases and cancer. Stress also plays and important part in depression.  Actually, the main symptoms of depression, such as demoralization, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, sleep, eating and sexual disorders are all closely related with disruptions in the different systems affected by stress.

What can be done to decrease these harmful effects?

Let’s begin with the perception of the stressor that triggers a stress reaction.  After perceiving the situation as stressful, the sooner we get out of that situation or change our perception of it, the faster we can close the stress systems.  The opposite is also true.  If we keep thinking about a stressor even after it is over, stress systems continue to work.

Let’s say you did something wrong at work and that caused a problem.  When you conceive that error as a stressor, the stress systems begin to work hard.  In this process, assessing the error, developing strategies to solve the problem, or trying to compensate for it are good steps to take towards ending stress.  On the other hand, thinking about the error over and over again, worrying, blaming yourself even if the problem resulting from this error has been eliminated causes the stress systems to continue to work hard, as if the event is happening again.  Other than the perception of the stressors, it is also important to try to protect the systems affected by the stress systems; thus, when we start to protect and thus strengthen one of the systems, we prevent the others from wearing out.  For instance, if we sleep and eat right and exercise, we can protect and strengthen nutritional, cardio-vascular and even energy systems affected by stress.   This creates a positive impact on stress systems and also our behavior; for instance in a situation like depression, the strengthened systems can support the healing of the individual’s mental state.  Other than that, everyone has a different way of dealing with stress and relaxing; it is important for the person to find the method that works for him.  When that does not work either, I believe getting psychological help is important to prevent more serious and longer-term problems.

Being exposed to stress at early ages increases the risk of psychological problems during adulthood

What creates the differences in different people’s ways of coping with stress?

The experiences we have in our environment interact with one another and with our genetic makeup, and determine at which type of situation and what type of reaction we will display. In other words, we can classify the factors that cause differences among individuals as genetic and environmental.  We know from years of behavioral genetics studies that an individual’s stress reaction is affected by genetic factors.  For example, the different chemicals that regulate the functioning and organization of the systems we talked about are produced more in some individuals than in others, depending on their genetic makeup.  On the other hand, psychological and epidemiological studies indicate that environmental factors such as traumatic experiences, social environment, family structure, lifestyle and habits also have an impact on the person’s reactions to stress.  Interdisciplinary studies conducted in recent years show that there is some interaction between these genetic and environmental factors and that this interaction can affect the reaction to stress.  For example, many studies on human and animal subjects have found that stressful events encountered early in life – e.g. abuse or inadequate care — cause the person to show a stronger reaction to stressful situations later in life, and that this can show differences from person to person, depending on genetic differences related to stress systems.  Unfortunately, such events experienced at early ages impact the development of the stress systems, increasing the risk of depression or anxiety in adulthood.

Other than the genetic and environmental factors, another factor underlying the differences is the features of the stressors such as how familiar and controllable the stressor is, and when, how many times and how often one has been exposed to the stressor.  For example, the stress caused by a death in the family will be different in childhood from the stress felt in adulthood.  Or the stress felt when a friend is ill will change based on how close the friend is, whether the illness is short term or long term, how much the progress of the illness can be controlled. Similarly, while a test you are taking for the first time may cause a high level of stress, after taking a similar test a few times, your stress level may not be the same.  Therefore, we can say that generally the characteristics of the stressor as well as genetic and environmental factors determine the reaction to stress.

Are there any studies you are conducting on the subject?

My research area is the genetic-environmental interactions underlying behavioral and psychological problems. Currently, we are conducting various interdisciplinary projects in our lab at Boğaziçi University, together with our graduate and undergraduate students. In a study on young adults, we are researching how environmental factors like stressful experiences and social relations interact with genetic differences in the serotonin system to trigger stress reactions. Another study that we are conducting with Assoc. Professor Feyza Çorapçı from our department is about the genetic-environmental interactions related to the family and school environments that affect kindergarten children’s emotions.  Finally, we are planning an international study that will start soon on adults exposed to war as children.

Interview:  Duygu Durgun Köseoğlu / Office of Corporate Communications