What makes you stressed?

Stress is a complicated phenomenon to say the least. Most people know the basics: stress has to do with the hormone cortisol, it’s involved with the HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, and you feel it before your final exam, as you sit in the crowded gymnasium, contemplating why you spent so many nights this week “Netflix and chilling” rather than preparing for your exam. But, in order to develop a test that will be able to measure stress, we first need to understand what makes people stressed.

Many psychologists study the effects of stress, including McGill’s very own Dr. Jens Pruessner; whom you may be familiar with from his Hormones and Behaviour course. I’ve been volunteering in Dr. Pruessner’s lab for the past 6 months, and have had the oppurtunity to gain an inside look at how we can manipulate stress in the lab and gain insight on the interplay between various physiological and psychological components of stress in healthy adults.

Our team is currently working on a study that utilizes the Montreal Imaging Stress Task, otherwise known as the MIST. This is a psychological test derived from the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which you may be more familiar with. The TSST is the classic stress task, which demands that participants perform a 5 minute oral presentation before a panel of judges, followed immediately by a mental arithmetic challenge, during which participants are asked to count backwards from 1,022 in steps of 13. Throughout the test, participants are asked to provide salivary swabs to test for changes in cortisol levels, as well as wear a heart rate monitor to assess changes in heart rate.

TSST (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trier_social_stress_test)

The MIST has a similar concept, but rather than using a panel of judges to induce a social evaluative stress reaction, a computerized mental arithmetic test is used, which contains a built-in social evaluative threat component. How it works is that the difficulty and time limit of the questions are designed to be just beyond the participant’s mental ability. In addition, there is an indicator at the top of the screen displaying the participant’s performance in comparison to the average person’s performance (which has been manipulated so that the average performance is always superior to the participant’s performance).

Top bar (red, yellow, green) is the performance indicator, which always shows the average/expected performance to be above the participant’s performance. The timer on the right hand side, as well as the difficulty of each question are also manipulated to be just above the particpant’s mental capacities.

Both the TSST and the MIST are considered to be both valid and reliable psychological tests to assess the stress response in healthy adults.

So, to address the question: “what makes you stressed?”, the answer is not exactly black and white, but what we do know, from the MIST and the TSST, is that social evaluation plays a key role in the stress response. It’s no wonder so many people feel anxious before public-speaking, or so many individuals suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD). So, the next time you have to give a speech in front of an auditorium full of listeners, keep in mind that it’s completely natural to feel stressed. Understanding the causes of stress can be a good first step in overcoming it.

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