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Study Shows How Social Status Affects Our Responses To Stress

Scientists say their study could shed light on stress-related mental illnesses, but more research is needed.

Is there a link between social status and stress?

Researchers at Tulane University have been studying whether an individual’s social status impacts their stress level. Their results would indicate that social rank, particularly in females, does indeed affect the stress response.

In a study published in Current Biology, Tulane psychology professor Jonathan Fadok and postdoctoral researcher Lydia Smith-Osborne looked at two forms of psychosocial stress, social isolation, and social instability, and how they manifest themselves based on social rank.

They researched adult female mice, putting them in pairs and allowing them to form a stable social relationships over several days. In each pair, one of the mice had high or dominant social status, while the other was considered the subordinate with a relatively low social status.

After establishing a baseline set of results, they monitored changes in behavior, stress hormones, and neuronal activation in response to chronic social stress.

Speaking to Science Daily about their research, Profesor Fadok said,

“We analyzed how these different forms of stress impact behavior and the stress hormone corticosterone (an analog of the human hormone, cortisol) in individuals based on their social rank. We also looked throughout the brain to identify brain areas that are activated in response to psychosocial stress.”


He explained further,

“We found that not only does rank inform how an individual responds to chronic psychosocial stress, but that the type of stress also matters.”


Meanwhile, Dr. Smith-Osbourne discovered that mice with lower social status were more susceptible to social instability akin to ever-changing or inconsistent social groups. Those with higher ranks were more susceptible to social isolation or loneliness.

There were also differences in the parts of the brain that became activated by social encounters, based upon the social status of the animal responding to it and whether they had experienced psychosocial stress.

Explaining this further, Smith-Osbourne told Science Daily,

“Some areas of a dominant animal’s brain would react differently to social isolation than to social uncertainty, for example. This was also true for subordinates. Rank gave the animals a unique neurobiological ‘fingerprint’ for how they responded to chronic stress.”


Do the researchers think the results can translate to people?

When posed with this exact question, Professor Fadok’s response was, “Perhaps.”

Giving the reasoning behind his response, Fadok said that overall, the findings might have implications for understanding the impact of social status and social networks on the prevalence of stress-related mental illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder and major depression.

However, future studies that use more complex social situations are needed before these results can translate to humans, according to the professor.

In summary

We all behave differently in stressful situations. But the way we behave, and the degree to which that situation affects us and our behavior, has always been an area that science has often grappled with.

It has long since been thought that crucial influencing factors that affect our response to stress have been previous dealings with trauma, other contributors to anxiety that we have in our lives, as well as how much our coping mechanism for stress has been fine-tuned in the past, either through training or experience.

This study shows that other causal factors can also play a hidden role to a degree, including social status and how that may manifest itself in our every day (stressful) lives. One of these might be social status and how we perceive ourselves, our standing,  and our abilities against those of others.

What are your thoughts on this research? Let us know in the comments.

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