Thursday, 8 September 2016

Stress is a universal experience, but is it unequally distributed across society?

Posted by Dr Joanne-Marie Cairns and Dr Emily Henderson, Durham University and Fuse.

How are you feeling today? Stressed at all?! If so, you are in good company.

Stress is so pervasive in our society that it contributed to a shocking 9.9 million working days lost in 2014/15(1), which equates to an average of 23 days per person. From an evolutionary perspective, stress is useful to animals such as humans to help us react to physical and social threats, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. According to Danielsson(2) and colleagues, stress can simply be defined as an imbalance between demands placed on us and our ability to cope with them. But if stress continues over a long period of time then a permanent imbalance may arise between the body’s degenerative (reduced growth) and regenerative (regrowth) functions. Stress can also lead to everyday problems including poor performance at work, low mood, lack of motivation, fatigue, sleep disturbance and chest and muscular pain as well as major life-limiting health problems such as high blood pressure, depression and chronic pain.

In light of these concerns, we organised a Health Summit on inequalities-related stress, with colleagues from the Local Area Research & Intelligence Association (LARIA), the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing, and Fuse - the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health. This event was hugely popular and brought together a wonderful mix of delegates and speakers from policy, practice and academia, from the North East and across the UK. The programme, which includes a list of speakers and a description of the talks, can be found here.

While stress can be a universal experience, it doesn’t manifest equally amongst certain population groups. For instance, Thoits(3) conducted a review which highlighted how unequally high exposure to stress by women and people in lower socioeconomic and minority groups lead to inequalities in health outcomes. Moreover, we see health inequalities accumulate over the life course as a result of this unequal distribution of disadvantage, for example Thoits refers to a study conducted by Turner and colleagues(4) that examined the effect of cumulative stressors in adults. These stressors that accumulated over time, explained a significant 50 per cent of the Socioeconomic status (SES) gap in depressive symptoms.

What are health inequalities then? These are differences in health status or determinants of health between different population groups. There are also intersecting inequalities, for example, if you are a lone parent but also on a low income, living in a disadvantaged area. Moreover, coping mechanisms sometimes adopted to mitigate stress can be health-damaging and lead to other forms of health problems, such as smoking or alcohol misuse. John Watson (Deputy Chief Executive, Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) Scotland) quite rightly argues that smoking IS NOT A LIFESTYLE ISSUE; rather in his words it is a form of medication to society’s maladies. Just think of the current global economic downturn as a societal issue that can be at the root cause of individual depression. As well, unequal access to jobs (at least good jobs that aren’t precarious in nature or that might lack autonomy) or good schools, which already limit an individual’s future prospects and may as a result contribute to psychosocial stress and poorer health highlighting the structural factors that are beyond the individual. Furthermore, stress at the population-level can manifest into geographical health inequalities. Data published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) shows that the North East Strategic Health Authority (SHA) had the highest admission rate due to anxiety of any of England's 10 SHAs (just under 24 per 100,000 of the population), while South Central SHA had the lowest (at nearly 11 per 100,000), mirroring other health outcomes and shows the stark North-South health divide in England.

‘Lifestyle’ is used ubiquitously in current public discourse, and can be understood as a set of factors that describe a person’s daily living. Obesity-related lifestyle often refers to people’s behaviours and apparent food choices(5). These so-called behaviours are ways in which individuals respond to challenging circumstances. They are not choices in the purest sense of the word. Rather, an individual may be experiencing financial difficulties and, feeling the demands in their life which outweigh their ability to cope, may respond to the situation by smoking, drinking or comfort eating. But what is actually causing the financial difficulty in the first place? Are individuals to blame for reacting to the bleak reality of poverty and the social gradient they find themselves in? The seminal work by Sir Michael Marmot tells us that we instead need to consider the “causes of the causes” of inequality, not just the symptoms. Politics is also important, as we have seen in the government’s release of the new obesity strategy which continues to support healthy choices, and maintains the voluntary efforts by industry by suggesting a 5 per cent sugar reduction in children’s food and drink. The chairwoman of the Health Select Committee, Dr Wollaston, told BBC Radio 5 live that “it does show the hand of big industry lobbyists and that’s really disappointing”(6). A key political talking point relates to the fact that what was a 50-page document was shortened to a mere 10 pages which does not do something as complex as obesity justice – it was “weak and watered down”.

To sum up, the discussions from our Health Summit supported the principle of moving away from individualised and stigmatising conceptions of unhealthy behaviours; after all it is not just poor people that behave poorly!

  1. Figures obtained from: [last accessed 17/08/16]
  2. Danielsson M, Heimerson I, Lundberg U, Perski A, Stefansson C-G, Ɓkerstedt T. 2012. Psychosocial stress and health problems. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 40(9):121-134.
  3. Thoits PA. 2010. Stress and Health: Major finding and policy implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(s):41-53.
  4. Turner R, Jay and William R. Avison. 2003. Status Variations in Stress Exposure: Implications for the Interpretation of Research on Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Gender. Journal of Health and Social Behavior,44:488–505.
  5. Nettleton S. Lay health beliefs, lifestyles and risk. The sociology of health and illness. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press; 2006. p. 33-70.
  6. [last accessed 19/08/16]

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