Thursday October 11 2012
Women exposed to bad news scored higher during a stress test
Bad news stories alter the way women respond to stress, BBC News has reported.
The news is based on a small study that found that women who read “bad news” produced more of the stress hormone cortisol than women who read “neutral” news when facing a subsequent stress test. The same reaction was not found in men. Women were also more likely to remember details of specific bad news items than men.
The researchers speculate that evolutionary pressures may explain this sex difference. Stress in men may by triggered by a perceived threat to their own wellbeing. But stress in women may also be triggered by potential threats to their children – a trait thought to be embedded by the evolutionary process. The researchers suggest that women who have genes that make them more protective of their offspring are more likely to have children who survive, which means the genes are passed on. This “hard-wired” childcare trait could have led women to become more empathetic and more emotionally responsive to real-world bad news stories.
Should women stop watching or reading the news? Although experts reportedly said the study showed “fascinating” differences between the sexes, it is difficult to know what conclusions to draw from this small study. Stress-related conditions do have a considerable impact on health, but this study does not bring us closer to effective strategies to tackle them.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Lafontaine Hospital, University of Montreal and McGill University, all in Canada. There is no information about external funding.
The study was published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.
The BBC coverage took the study at face value, reporting expert opinion that women “seem more reactive to stressors”. The Daily Mail’s headline focuses on the researchers’ speculation that, “headlines take toll [on women] because they have evolved to look out for situations that affect them and their children”. However, the Mail did not acknowledge that this was unevidenced speculation.
What kind of research was this?
The researchers point out that we now have access to 24-hour news coverage on TV channels, the internet and smartphones, yet there has not been much research into the effect of this media exposure. They point out that most media news is negative and that it is well known that the brain responds to perceived threats by activating a stress system that causes the secretion of cortisol (the “stress hormone”). The researchers cite previous studies that found that people who watched frequent television news items related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks had higher levels of stress than those who did not.
This laboratory study looked at how a group of 60 healthy men and women reacted to certain types of information in the media. In particular, it aimed to find out if reading a selection of bad news was physiologically stressful, altered the stress response to a subsequent stress test and affected memory of the news.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 30 men and 30 women between the age of 18 and 35 years, using online ads posted on university and other websites. All participants were screened on the telephone to ensure they did not have any psychological or physical illness.
Participants came to the researchers’ laboratory, where their cortisol levels were measured from saliva samples. The men and women were randomly divided into separate groups of 15. One group acted as a control and members were given “neutral” news stories to read (such as weather reports or stories on local politics), while members of the other group were given “negative” news items (such as stories involving violent crime).
Each participant was given 12 news stories to read on a screen, consisting of the title and short excerpt, collected from popular newspapers. The articles were all published in the same month. This task lasted for 10 minutes, after which further saliva samples were collected.
Participants were then subjected to a well known psychosocial stress test known as the Trier Social Stress Test. The test is designed to cause stress about being judged on performance. During the test the participants:
- prepared for and underwent a mock job interview
- performed mental arithmetic
The participants did this in front of a camera and facing a false mirror, behind which two “judges” pretending to be experts in behavioural analysis observed them and communicated with them.
Saliva samples were taken at various intervals and participants were asked to rate the stressfulness of the test on a scale of one to 10.
One day later, participants were called on the telephone and asked to recall as much of the news items they had read as possible and encouraged to give as many details as possible. The details of the call were written down and scored in terms of how much was remembered. Participants were also asked to rate the “emotionality” of each news excerpt on a scale of one to five (one being very neutral and five being very emotional), and the extent to which they felt concerned about the stories (one being not concerned at all and five being very concerned).
The researchers took eight saliva samples in all, which were analysed for their cortisol concentrations.
They analysed their data using standard statistical methods, to find out if there was any association between reading bad news and an increase in cortisol levels. They also used people’s scoring of the “emotionality” of news to find out if their selection of “negative” and “neutral” news was validated.
In their results they also took into account the phase of the menstrual cycle each woman was in at the time of the study.
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that, compared with the control groups:
- reading negative news did not lead to any change in cortisol levels in men or women
- among women only, reading negative news was associated with a significant increase in cortisol when they were exposed to the subsequent stress test
- women who had read negative news stories had better recall of news compared with men who read negative news
How did the researchers interpret the results?
They say their results suggest a “potential mechanism” in women, by which exposure to negative media stories increases stress reactivity and also memory. It is not clear why the same phenomenon was not found in men, they say. Possibly, they argue, women are more likely to “ruminate” on bad news, which would explain the results. They suggest that men and women’s stress systems have evolved differently, with women’s “wired up” to protect their offspring from external threats.
Regular exposure to negative news stories can “have its toll on the capacity of women to more strongly react to other emotional stressors of their daily life”, they conclude.
This small study found that, compared with women who were given “neutral” news to read, women who read bad news had raised cortisol levels when given a subsequent stress test and also had better memory of news stories the next day. The same was not true for men.
The study was well conducted, in the sense that participants were randomly assigned to either a control or exposure group, so that the measurements of cortisol levels could be compared between the two. However, it is not clear whether participants were informed of the aims of the study and in what way their reactions may have been influenced by this. It is also worth bearing in mind that this research took place in artificial laboratory test conditions and may not reflect how we feel in response to bad news headlines in everyday life.
The effect of stress on our health and the best way to manage stress, are both important topics for research. That technology now gives us access to news 24/7, which may affect stress levels, is also important. But it’s difficult to see what this small study adds to our understanding of this area or how this research could help manage stress levels in women or men.
The Mail’s description of men shrugging off bad news while women are reduced to tears plays on stereotypes. Otherwise, the coverage in both the Mail and on the BBC was good.
If you want to reduce your stress levels in response to bad health news stories, it’s always worth checking out Behind the Headlines to see whether the news is something to worry about. It usually isn’t.
Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.