Stress Impairs New Threat Recognition

Stress is a survival response. It puts us in a state of heightened alert which is supposed to help us see threats so that we can avoid them. However, new research suggests that being stressed may “lock in” threat cues, making it harder for us to respond flexibly to new cues.

This is just one of the ways that stress impairs your ability to function, making it harder to respond and adapt to life’s constantly changing challenges. That’s why tools like NuCalm–which helps diminish stress–are crucial for modern times.

Stress Impairs New Threat Recognition

Pavlovian Conditioning

For this study, researchers at New York University and Peking University used pavlovian conditioning to create a sense of threat from certain stimuli. People were shown a number of different images. Some of these images were associated with a mild but painful electric shock. Subjects learned quickly to distinguish these “threat cues” from “safe cues” which were not associated with electric shocks.

The next day, half of the participants were subjected to a stress-inducing stimulus. In this case, subjects put their arm in a bucket of ice water, which is known to induce elevated levels of two different stress hormones: alpha-amylase and cortisol. Then, all participants were shown the same images as before, except that this time, the previously safe images were associated with shocks while those that had served as threat cues were safe.

Unstressed participants were able to learn the new threats relatively quickly. However, people who were stressed had much more difficulty adapting. It took them much longer to learn the new threats and respond to them physiologically, even though there was no difference in initial learning rates between the two groups.

Researchers found that the learning lag was associated with the level of post-stress alpha-amylase.

Chronic Stress Is Damaging

This study is just the latest evidence that chronic stress–such as job-related stress–is damaging. Not only can it hurt your body and put you at increased risk of chronic illness and dangerous conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It can also affect the way your brain is able to respond to threats. Stress might heighten your awareness of current or past threats, but it doesn’t help you to learn and adapt to new threats. This in itself can ramp up the cycle of stress. Being unable to identify new threats can heighten your sense that you are constantly being hit with dangerous surprises. Likely some of these didn’t have to be surprises at all: you just missed the cues because stress had you focused on current and past dangers.

That’s why it’s important to control your chronic stress. Tools like NuCalm can help you reduce your stress levels. NuCalm provides immediate stress relief, and provides for greater resilience against future stressors. Combined with improved sleep, this helps you to live a more stress-free life. That not only helps you maintain your health, but makes you more agile in your responses to the constantly changing challenges of life.

If you want to learn more about how NuCalm can help you respond agilely to developing situations, please contact a local NuCalm provider.