01 February 2010

Breakthrough in understanding stress

Professor Elaine Fox

Scientists at the University of Essex have made a breakthrough in understanding what makes people vulnerable to stress.

A team led by Professor Elaine Fox of the Department of Psychology tested 100 people and found that, by measuring their biases towards noticing negative rather than positive images, it was possible to predict future susceptibility to stress. This study is the first to show that biases towards negative information make it possible to predict a physiological reaction to stress up to eight months later.

Professor Fox said: ‘These biases are likely to be reliable early warning signs for vulnerability to anxiety, and open up possibilities for therapy.’

Research published a year ago by Professor Fox’s team identified a gene which is powerfully linked to a tendency to selectively avoid negative images and to pay attention to positive information.

The team’s latest findings are published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, tested participants three times over an eight month period. A wide ranging questionnaire to assess participants’ levels of anxiety and depression was completed on the first occasion, as well as measuring the level of cortisol in their saliva. (Cortisol is a known physiological marker of stress).

Participants’ reactions to positive and negative images were also measured. This was done by flashing a variety of pictures very rapidly on a computer screen and asking people to detect small probes that appeared near the pictures. Some people were faster to detect the probes when they appeared near highly positive images such as smiling babies and playing puppies. Others were quicker to notice the probes near negative images such as a snarling dog or pointed gun. These biases were particularly strong when the images were presented so quickly that people could not consciously see them.

People who had a strong subliminal bias towards negative, rather than positive, material showed a stronger physiological (cortisol) reaction to both laboratory-based and real-life stress up to eight months later. The measures of these biases were much better for predicting subsequent stress than questionnaire measures of anxiety, depression and neuroticism. These findings applied to both a laboratory-based stress task (four months later), and a real-life stressful situation, shortly before end of year university exams (eight months later).

The results suggest that biases towards noticing negative things - especially when they operate subconsciously – might pre-dispose people to anxiety disorders.

Professor Fox’s team is continuing this research, in another Wellcome Trust-funded project, by investigating whether computer-based training to actively modify these biases in people’s attention could enhance their resilience to traumatic life events.
ends

Notes to Editors

1. Preconscious Processing Biases Predict Emotional Reactivity to Stress by Elaine Fox, Shanna Cahill and Konstantina Zougkou is published online today in Biological Psychiatry (see: http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/bps/article/S0006-3223(09)01376-6/abstract).

2. For further information, or to arrange an interview with Professor Fox, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400.

...more news releases