How can stress be studied

One of the difficulties therefore of studying the effects of stress in the lives of people or animals is that of evaluating the impact and comparability of stressful situations on different individuals. In an attempt to circumvent this difficulty, many studies of stress and the immune system have been conducted by the controlled application of 'standard stressors' to populations of laboratory animals (Table 1). Here, a particular situation (usually involving some form of physical insult) is judged by the experimenter to be stressful on the basis of the subsequent behavior of the animals. Such studies have been valuable in delineating some of the pathways of interconnection between autonomic, neuroendocrine and immune system activities, as we shall see later. They have highlighted, for example, the distinction between the effects of acute and chronic stressors, the potential modulating and exacerbating effects of 'control' and 'helplessness' respectively, and the fact that corticosteroids, while clearly important immunomodulators, are not obligatory players in neuroimmune responses to stressors.

Although an analogous approach in human studies has been to submit volunteers to 'stressful' situations and to assess short-term effects on immune variables,

Table 1 Investigating stress

How can stress be studied?

• Apply 'stressors' to animals or people and observe behavioral and physiological changes

• Compare groups of individuals living under circumstances that differ in their degree of 'stressfulness'

• Observe individuals at various times in their lives and correlate effects with their personal assessments of stressfulness

What questions can be asked?

• Are there correlations between stress-associated immune effects and disease or illness?

• What immune variables are affected by stress?

• Are there differences between the effects of short-term and chronic stressors?

• Is there a distinction between interpersonal and nonsocial situations?

• What are the mechanistic pathways within an individual's physical makeup through which stress might be acting on the immune system?

much human stress research has focused on 'naturally stressful' events in people's lives and selected subjects undergoing the same particular event. Accepting the notion that stress is an individual assessment, a further approach has sought to relate self-reported stress, usually accessed through standardized stress and anxiety questionnaires, to immune activity. Although there are many problems inherent in the use of questionnaires and self-reports, this approach has merit in that it relates stress to the context and meaning of individual lives and opens the possibility that altered perceptions might correspondingly alter physiological and immunological impact.

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