Few will argue that the economy has been in tough shape, worldwide. In case you’re anxious about a job or how to afford back-to-school supplies, recent research shows that when uncertainty is added to feelings of anxiety, the anxiety worsens.
In results published Aug. 13 online in the journal Cerebral Cortex, brain scans performed on human volunteers showed that uncertainty connected to a bad experience, made the bad experience seem even worse. Details of the study will be published in the September 2009 issue of Cerebral Cortex (1).
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the amygdala and insula, parts of the brain important for emotional responses. Results showed much stronger responses in these regions to negative stimuli when the event was preceded by uncertainty.
Thirty-six student volunteers wore goggles that showed them a series of pictures, either neutral (for example a chair) or aversive, such as a badly wounded person. The subjects showed the strongest response in both the amygdala and insula, to the aversive images when those images were preceded by a question mark, which signaled uncertainty.
Dr. Jack Nitschke, a professor of Psychiatry in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, noted the relevance of this study to current economic situations, pointing out the dramatic impact expectations have on our lives, affecting performance at work and school, interpersonal relationships and health. Expectations can alter perceptions of negative events as well as neural and emotional health.
In another study that looked at physiologic responses to stress, Nuno Sousa et al., reported that chronic stress affected decision-making abilities in rats (2). Rats exposed to chronic stress lost their ability to shift behavorial strategies, a necessary component of healthy decision making.
The rats were taught to press a lever to get treats, either a drink of sugar water or a food pellet. The scientists then changed the rules, giving the rats all the treats they wanted before providing the option to press the treat lever. The nonstressed rats pressed the lever for treats significantly less often, showing the ability to adapt to a change in circumstances. However, the stressed rats continued to press the treat lever at the same rate as previously; they were unable to adapt to the changed circumstances.
Furthermore, the researchers noted marked physiological changes in regions of the stressed rats’ brains. The region associated with goal-directed (adaptable) behavior had shrunk, inhibiting its connections to other cells, while the region that controls habitual behavior (pressing the lever regardless of results) had increased in size.
Most of us look for ways to avoid stress. But at those times when stressful situations can’t be avoided, we employ a coping mechanism. We might go for a walk, a bike ride, perhaps even a swim.
Some of us also combat tough times by eating comfort food, be it mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken or ice cream.
Wouldn’t you know it? Recent research shows that stress can ruin comfort food for us. According to this report, during times of ‘upheaval’ people are more likely to choose the unfamiliar, be it food or a new form of exercise.
Stacy L. Wood, Associate Professor of Marketing at Moore School of Business, the University of South Carolina reported on research to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research (3). She noted that individuals in situations of great change or upheaval were less likely to go with the tried and true, whether in comfort food, exercise or music downloads; they were more likely to seek new places to exercise or listen to unfamiliar songs.
Perhaps upheaval as a stressor can be a good thing! Instead of eating comfort food, we’re trying new things, stretching our tastes in food, music, exercise. Even going to new places.
If tough times don’t improve soon, I may lose (the chocolate donut and) those ‘last ten pounds’.
How about you–dealing with uncertainty in your life or in your research? Have the changed economic times led you to make any positive changes?
- Nitschke, J.B. et al. (2009) Cerebral Cortex. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID:19679543.
- Sousa, N. et al. (2009) Science. PMID:19644122.
- Wood, S. L. (2009) Journal of Consumer Research.
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