The Devil Made Me Do It

by Curt Kovener

The late comedian Flip Wilson developed a comedic character Geraldine who frequently said about her misbehaviors “The devil made me do it.”
Think about money, work, economic outlook, family, and relationships. Feeling anxious? Felling like acting out like Geraldine? In a 2010 American Psychological Association survey, those five factors were the most often cited sources of stress for Americans.
Stress is strongly tied to cardiac disease, hypertension, inflammatory diseases, and compromised immune systems, and possibly to cancer. And stress can literally break your heart. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” occurs when the bottom of the heart balloons into the shape of a pot (a tako-tsubo) used in Japan to trap octopus. It’s caused when grief or another extreme stressor makes stress hormones flood the heart.
The hormone cortisol is responsible for a lot of these ill effects. Elevated cortisol gives us a short-term boost but also suppresses the immune system, elevates blood sugar, and impedes bone formation.
Even the next generation pays a price: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, find an association between high cortisol in mothers during late pregnancy and lower IQs in their children at age 7. Stress during pregnancy has also been linked to offspring with autism.
But enough stressing! One way to relax: a career of mild obsolescence (like running a weekly community newspaper??) Surveying 200 professions, the site CareerCast.com rated bookbinder the least stressful job of 2011…also the poorest. (Most stressful: firefighter and airline pilot.)
Want to get rid of stress? Move! The online journal Portfolio.com looked at America’s 50 biggest metro areas, analyzing such criteria as employment, income, circulatory disease, sunshine, and murder rate, and ranked Salt Lake City _as the least stressful. The most stressful? Detroit.
Can’t relocate? Perhaps you should take up violent video games. Researchers at Texas A&M International University gave 103 subjects frustrating tasks, then asked them to play video games. Among subjects with a history of violent gaming, the fake mayhem of Hitman: Blood Money and Call of Duty 2 did a great job of easing stress.
You might also try eating your veggies. Yale researchers reported in the journal Military Medicine that after survival training, “carbohydrate administration”-eating complex carbs like those in carrots and potatoes-boosted soldiers’ cognitive functioning. But, alas, no such luck with the simple carbs in cake and cookies.
But watch what you don’t eat. Neuro scientists at the University of Pennsylvania fattened up mice for four weeks, then abruptly cut their caloric intake. When exposed to stress, the animals responded with more depression- and anxiety-like behaviors than did their non-dieting peers.
At Louisiana State University, rats were subjected to unpredictable foot shocks and then allowed to self-administer intravenous doses of cocaine. They used more once the stress started. Which may explain the increased consumption of alcohol in some local folks.
Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that chronically stressed lab rats respond habitually and ineffectively to stimuli. Trained to press a lever to receive a treat, the rats kept pressing even after they’d been fed. The stressed rats’ brains showed shrunken neurons in the dorsomedial striatum (an area associated with goal-directed behavior) and growth in the dorsolateral striatum (related to habitual behavior).
The results suggest that people, too, get locked into rote behavior by stress. Sure enough, other studies show that the primate hippocampus-central to learning and memory-is damaged by long-term exposure to cortisol.
But I wonder if some scientists are just taking out their stress on the lab rats?