By Aaniqa Qayoom
The world is hit hard by the pandemic which has consequently paved way for many derived disturbances and chaos as such, be it sociopolitical, mental, economic, etc. There has been tremendous amount of stress that has got buildup all through this. Most people experience stress and anxiety from time to time. Stress is any demand placed on your brain or physical body. People can report feeling stressed when multiple competing demands are placed on them. The feeling of being stressed can be triggered by an event that makes you feel frustrated or nervous
Fear is yet another crucial aspect of all this, fear learning and regulation is a prominent model for describing the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders and stress-related psychopathology. Fear expression can be modulated using a number of regulatory strategies, including extinction, cognitive emotion regulation, avoidance strategies and reconsolidation. In this regard, we can examine research investigating the effects of acute stress and stress hormones on these regulatory techniques. We can focus on what is known about the impact of stress on the ability to flexibly regulate fear responses that are acquired through Pavlovian fear conditioning. Our primary aim is to explore the impact of stress on fear regulation in humans. Given this, we may focus on techniques where stress has been linked to alterations of fear regulation in humans (extinction and emotion regulation), and other techniques (avoidance and reconsolidation) where the impact of stress or stress hormones have been mainly explored in animal models.
These investigations reveal that acute stress may impair the persistent inhibition of fear, presumably by altering prefrontal cortex function. Characterizing the effects of stress on fear regulation is critical for understanding the boundaries within which existing regulation strategies are viable in everyday life and can better inform treatment options for those who suffer from anxiety and stress-related psychopathology.
The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times. Some studies uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.
In our hyper-connected world, information flows rapidly from person to person. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information – such as about dangers to our health – can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts. However, whether or not stress influences this has not been completely studied.
Since we are often under acute stress even in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do.
To do this, researchers conducted an experiment in which they had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance, then report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles, and say what information they would pass on to others. Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a control task.
The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information. Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree. Notably, this dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response. In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress did show higher concern and more alarming risk communication.
On the one hand, the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful. Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions such as risky driving or practising unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviors, such as not getting vaccinated and drug abuse.
By revealing the differential effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective. Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks.