Acute stress may slow down the spread of fears

May 24, 2020

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Acute stress may slow down the spread of fears

Really surprising research reveals that stress changes the way we deal with risky information. The results shed light on how stressful events, such as a global pandemic, can influence how information and misinformation about health risks spreads in social networks.

What the researchers say: “The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times,” says the senior author on the study. “Our results uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.”

The study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, is the result of a multidisciplinary team of European researchers.

In our hyper-connected world, information flows rapidly from person to person. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information—such as about dangers to our health—can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts. However, whether or how stress influences this has never previously been studied.

“Since we are often under acute stress, even increasingly in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do,” said the researchers.

To do this, researchers had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance and report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles. They were also asked what information they would pass on to others. Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a less stressful control task.

The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information. Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree, which was surprising. This dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response (or the freeze part of flight, fight or freeze). In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress (as opposed to actually being in a stressful situation) did show higher concern and more alarming risk communication.

“On the one hand, experiencing the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas just feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful,” the lead author said. “Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions such as risky driving or practicing unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviors, such as not getting vaccinated.”

By revealing the differential effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective. “Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks,” the lead author concluded.

So, what? The two critical reactions to the different stressors presented in the study are freeze (the underestimation of the risk and the avoidance of action (not getting the vaccination) and fight (the active spreading of true or false information). Showing that these two reactions have a different etiology in terms of stress and neurochemical foundation is fascinating. More research is needed.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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