The behavioral effects of chronic stress make sense for the simplest reason that it has known negative effects on the mental health of affected individuals. Studies showed that chronic stress can bring forth several behavioral problems such as diminished sociability and reduced confidence. In other words, people who are under too much stress for prolonged periods often exhibit poor sociability and risk aversion tendencies.
How Chronic Stress Affects Our Sociability and Confidence
Problems with Sociability and Relationships
Researchers M. A. Van der Kooij et al. discovered that chronic stress triggers an enzyme called MMP-9 to attack the synaptic regulatory molecule nectin-3 in the hippocampus region resulting in loss of adherence between neurons or synaptic plasticity. Subsequently, because this transpires in the hippocampus, the outward manifestations of nectin-3 downregulation include loss of sociability and peer avoidance.
It is also worth mentioning that stress increases the predisposition of the brain toward mental disorders. The study by Stephen S. G. Ferguson et al. determined the biological link between stress, anxiety, and depression. Chronic stress activates a protein known as corticotropin-releasing factor receptor 1 or CRFR1 that in turn, triggers anxiety and promotes the release of specific types of serotonin receptors called 5-HTRs on cell surfaces in the brain. An abundance of 5-HTRs results in abnormal brain signaling and thus, depression.
People suffering from anxiety or depression also display behavioral problems. Both mental disorders could promote abhorrence to social interactions. For example, individuals with anxiety disorders have an overwhelming level of worry and fear that are crippling. On the other hand, those who are suffering from clinical depression exhibit persistent low moods and low self-esteem accompanied by a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities.
Apart from diminished sociability due to antisocial tendencies, stress could also reduce confidence and promote risk aversion. Another study by L. Goette et al. revealed that people who have a higher predisposition toward anxiety are more likely to be less confident and less competitive when under stress—as opposed to low-anxiety people who exhibit overconfidence and become highly competitive when subjected to stress.
Reduced Confidence and Risk Aversion
Goette et al. concluded that stress is a considerable factor in fostering inequality among people because of the role it plays in building or reducing confidence. Note that confidence is essential to the ability of each individual to compete in society and those who are less confident are less likely to make the kind of decisions that can give them a social and financial edge over others. The researchers noted that confidence is central to the organization and function of human societies because it drives social competition.
A study by N. Kandasamy et al. investigated the link between stress level and risk aversion. They recruited volunteers and administered them with hydrocortisone—the pharmaceutical form of the stress hormone cortisol—over an eight-day period to effectively raise their stress level while they participated in a lottery-style financial risk-taking task with real monetary payoffs.
Results revealed that an initial spike of cortisol had little effect on behavior but chronically high and sustained levels led to a dramatic drop in the willingness of the volunteers to take risks. Take note that this experiment emulated a real-world situation in which financial traders are subjected to sustained high levels of stress during market slumps caused by financial or economic crises.
The researchers also mentioned that although stress and the release of cortisol normally have beneficial functions by preparing the body for possible action by releasing glucose and free fatty acids into the blood, abnormally high levels of this hormone due to chronic stress could impair cognitive abilities, heighten anxiety, and trigger depression.
Based on the results of their study, Kandasamy et al. hypothesized that the stress-induced shifts in risk preferences might be a cause of market instability that has been hitherto overlooked by economists, risk managers, and central bankers—especially considering that several established and influential economic, financial, and biological models assume that risk preference is a stable trait.
Cognition psychologists Lars Schwabe and Oliver Wolf have also linked stress with the conflict between habits and goal-directed behaviors. Their study revealed that the interaction of the hormones hydrocortisone and noradrenaline shuts down the activity of brain regions for goal-directed behavior—particularly the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortex—while leaving the brain regions for habitual behavior.
Thus, while under chronic stress, an individual tends to lose sight of his or her goals while also lapsing back into habits. In other words, individuals who are under stressful situations do not behave based on their predetermined goals but according to habit.
Behavioral Effects of Chronic Stress and Its Greater Implications
Results of the referenced studies showed that the behavioral effects of chronic stress revolve around tendencies to exhibit poor sociability or interpersonal interactions, as well as risk-free and insecure decision-making. However, a more profound takeaway from these results centers on the macro-level impact of stress.
The separate studies of Goette et al. and Kandasamy et al. suggested that collective stress has far-reaching implications that could influence the course of an entire group or community. This is inevitable nonetheless. Stress brings forth behavioral problems and when it is pervasive in a group and community, the collective behaviors could affect social interactions and organizations.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Van der Kooij, M. A., Fantin, M., Rejmak, E., Grosse, J., Zanoletti, O., Fournier, C., Ganguly, K., Kalita, K., Kaczmarek, L., and Sandi, C. 2014. “Role for MMP-9 in Stress-Induced Downregulation of Nectin-3 in Hippocampal CA1 and Associated Behavioural Alterations.” Nature Communications. 5(1). DOI: 1038/ncomms5995
- Goette, L., Bendahan, S., Thoresen, J., Hollis, F., and Sandi, C. 2015. “Stress Pulls Us Apart: Anxiety Leads to Differences in Competitive Confidence Under Stress.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 54: 115-123. DOI: 1016/j.psyneuen.2015.01.019
- Kandasamy, N., Hardy, B., Page, L., Schaffner, M., Graggaber, J., Powlson, A. S., Fletcher, P. C., Gurnell, M., and Coates, J. 2014. “Cortisol Shifts Financial Risk Preferences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111(9): 3608-3613. DOI: 1073/pnas.1317908111
- Schwabe, L., Tegenthoff, M., Hoffken, O., and Wolf, O. T. 2012. “Simultaneous Glucocorticoid and Noradrenergic Activity Disrupts the Neural Basis of Goal-Directed Action in the Human Brain.” Journal of Neuroscience. 32(30): 10146-10155. DOI: 1523/jneurosci.1304-12.2012
- Southwick, S. M., Vythilingam, M., and Charney, D. S. 2005. “The Psychobiology of Depression and Resilience to Stress: Implications for Prevention and Treatment.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 1(1): 255-291. DOI: 1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.143948