What is a Stress Perspective?
A Stress Perspective looks at the interaction of the many factors that lead to outcomes.
It uses a framework of science (the word science means the “rules we use to discover truth”) that is much different than the typical framework we are accustomed to.
For example, when two people have a cancer, we look for what they have in common that led to that cancer. When we find that variable we find the cause. Within a stress framework, when two people have the same cancer, they could have very different causes. Each respective cause created a specific type of stress that lead to the outcome.
These are two very different scientific frameworks. One is referred to as linear, the other is referred to as nonlinear. The former is direct, the latter is indirect.
Stress is not just a bad thing that happens. Because stress, more importantly, is about information from the environment. When we have too much, too strong or not enough stress, this communication creates programming. Programming that can become problematic if the stress messages do not represent the actual environment (Boersma).
Different people, both consciously and unconsciously, handle stress differently. Consciously we can learn to cope and use our grit to handle stress. Unconsciously we have a myriad of chemical messengers, proteins and inflammation strategies that come into play. Different temperaments, as defined by Helen Fisher, handle stress differently because of their neurobiology. These are genetic influences that push outcomes and make some environmental influences on certain people more stressful than others.
Let’s look at an Example:
Smoking causes lung cancer (ACS).
Smoking has a direct effect damaging the cells of lung tissue that create cancer. That is a very simple direct straight-line cause to effect, 80% of the time this is the cause.
From a Stress Perspective not only does smoking have a direct effect but it has many indirect effects, interactions and outcomes mediated through oxidative stress (Kakehashi). Stress doesn’t only have a direct impact, it has many indirect impacts. What is stressful depends on many different variables. And further, stress is about the adaptations it creates.
An example of an adaptation is when a child is exposed to smoke. This sets off a cascade of immune responses and programming shown to correlate with later life issues like depression and antisocial behavior. When we take a stress perspective, we look at how smoking not only creates direct damage but how smoking creates stress. Stress pathways fan out the influences and outcomes. The reverse is also true, stress can come from many different sources. Other stresses or anti-stress resources can decrease or increase the impact of the central stressor (in this case smoking).
One could say that smoking causes lung cancer and be done with it. However, it is the stress mechanisms that help us understand the caveats, exceptions and confounders. A Stress Perspective can also lead us to better treatment protocols and solutions. Directly by implementing strategies that reduce stress, such as pharmaceuticals that address oxidative pathways, antioxidant therapies and even stress management and behavioral therapies. Indirectly when we take a stress approach we apply these therapies in increments. Slowly re-training the system and re-adapting the overactive programming. This sometimes needs to be done in a systematic step-by-step manner. When it comes to stress you can’t always get rid of the stress to solve the problem (like you would in linear cause-and-effect). Much of the time you have to work with the stress to reduce it or reverse the programming, or you may have to simply accommodate for the programming to stop it from getting worse.
The Stress Model for Causation
When we take a Stress Perspective, we look at the many interactions that create the environment for stressors to exert their influences. And it’s more than just vulnerable or resilient. Stress adaptation means one stress can influence two different people in opposite ways. Often times this is a condition of their inherent temperament (personality can impact immunity–see Microglia, Sex and Autism). Other foundational stress influences besides our inherent temperament are our microbiome, sunlight (vitamin D and melatonin), fat balances, social stresses and epigenetics (past stress influences and current state of stress reactivity).
Here is smoking plugged into a Stress Model:
- Genetics and genotype-phenotypes for smoking (Pintarelli).
- The importance of gene-environment interactions in tobacco-related cancers(Wu,). Changes in DNA include methylation (Fasanelli), histone modifications, and non-coding RNA expression (Langevin), smoking induced by oxidative stress (Sundar) on these functions.
- Early Life Stress Exposures such asbestos or the ingestion of arsenic, increase the impact of smoking.
- Diet: Fruits/Vegetables, Nutrients and “Lifestyle” Factors all impact smoking’s effects leading to cancer
- Social Stress can increase tumor growth.
- Exercise: Physical stress can help build stress resiliency and therefore impacts cancer rates in smoking (Higgins)
When we include this extra scientific layer of stress influences, it allows us to see the caveats that are involved in who gets lung cancer. Such as genetic predispositions. One genetic reason is when individuals lack an enzyme that breaks down carcinogens (Marshall), it makes smoking more stressful. A stress model allows for clarification of why people get lung cancers. It even helps us to understand why individuals who have never smoked (while rare, an important exception to note) get cancer. A Stress Perspective can help explain why second-hand smoke can be even more dangerous (Birru) and how diet influences risk (Hosseini). None of this changes the fact that smoking causes lung cancer. However, this provides the pathways for when and how. It also provides us with the understanding of conflicting and contradictory studies.
The reason one week “name a health food” is good for us and the next week “name the health food” is bad for us? Because when it comes to stress mechanisms, the answer is “it depends”.
The rules and expected behavior from a Stress Perspective gives us insight into a new model for understanding evidence; be it obesity, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s or Autism. This model can be applied to most diseases and disorders of today. It can illuminate how we can individually and systematically address chronic health issues. This is done by looking at how stress and the combination of exposures create outcomes. A Stress Model will also profoundly change how we discover solutions. There is a wide berth of currently disconnected research in the world of neuroscience; like points on a map that just need connected. We have all the information we need but what we have lacked is a comprehensive way to bring it together. A Stress Model is map of the interconnectedness of the mind with the body and the genes with the environment.
We do not know what causes autism or cancer. What we do have, from a Stress Perspective, is the ways and means to know more.