Studies find class affects the brain

Australian workers are experiencing greater levels of stress, according to a new Australian Psychological Society report.

Seventy-five percent of respondents to the third “Stress and wellbeing in Australia” survey claimed that stress is having an impact on their physical health; 68 percent reported that their mental health is suffering.

Alarmingly, almost one in seven reported depressive symptoms in the “severe to extremely severe” range. Anxiety levels are similarly high. The survey also found that the biggest source of stress is personal financial issues. The picture gets worse when working women are considered separately. Nearly half said that workplace issues are a source of stress. Twenty-five percent reported moderate to severe stress levels. The overwhelming majority said that this has a negative impact on their physical and mental health.

Most reported that “focusing on the positives”, spending time with friends or family and reading, are effective stress management strategies. However, new research published in the journal Science indicates that we should aim to eradicate, rather than simply “manage”, stress.

Researchers from the University of Warwick, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of British Colombia found that worrying about money reduces our brain’s ability to function. Researchers tested the cognitive capacity of a group of “rich” and “poor” participants. Before completing a set of tasks, participants were asked how they would resolve a hypothetical scenario involving either a small or a large financial problem.

Rich and poor participants showed similar cognitive abilities after contemplating the relatively trivial financial scenario. However, after being asked to think about a situation that involved coming up with a large sum of money, the poor participants had significantly worse cognitive performance than the rich participants.

The authors of “Poverty impedes cognitive function” argued that being poor means not only dealing with a lack of money, but also a deficit of mental resources. The burden of worrying about money – choosing whether to prioritise paying the rent or the gas bill or buying food – takes neural resources away from thinking about studies, parenting or work.

According to the study, living with this kind of stress is comparable to permanently living in a state of sleep deprivation – the equivalent of operating every day as though you had not slept the night before. It’s no wonder so many Australian workers report that stress affects their mental and physical health.

But try living with this kind of stress for years. Unsurprisingly, the toll on your brain accumulates.

Another recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has demonstrated a link between childhood poverty and brain irregularities in adulthood. “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on emotion regulatory brain function in adulthood” found that adults who had lived in low-income families as children had impaired brain function

Exposure to stress during adolescence turned out to mediate the extent of the abnormalities. For example, those who had lived in crowded or substandard housing during their adolescent years demonstrated less activity in the prefrontal cortex, and greater activity in the amygdala. These two brain regions are important due to their role in regulating emotion and detecting threats.

These studies illustrate the deep and long-lasting effects of stress and poverty. Forcing workers to live with job insecurity and financial stress clearly hurts more than just the hip pocket.