Contact: Samuele Zilioli, PhD
For Release: Immediately
Although abundant support from families, teachers or friends may minimize the harmful physical effects of stress on all children, youngsters coping with the most stressful life events show the greatest physical benefit from ample social support, a novel new study suggests.
Amid our current pandemic, these findings underscore that it’s important for parents and other community members to provide emotional comfort for children grappling with stress, says study author Samuele Zilioli, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Dept. of Psychology and the Dept. of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences at Wayne State University. Published online ahead of print, the study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Most evidence on how social support might affect the body’s response to stress comes from adults and doesn’t consider their current level of life stress, says Zilioli. This is among the first studies to investigate how children react to stress in a lab setting, taking into account how much social support they feel they’re getting and how stressful their lives have been in the last year.
Participants included 150 Beijing children nine to 13 years old who filled out questionnaires before going to the lab. One questionnaire asked 16 questions about how much support the kids felt from family, friends, teachers or others. Among sample items: “I can talk about my problems with my family.”; “My teachers try to help me.”; “I have a special person who really cares about my feelings.” The children also indicated how many of 26 stressful life events– family, school, interpersonal, health-related— they’d experienced over the last year.
Then the children performed two lab tasks that reliably induce stress, one arithmetic-based and the other public speaking with an emphasis on evaluation of their performance. Researchers took saliva samples before, during, immediately after and a few more times after the tasks. They measured an enzyme rapidly secreted under stress, as well as the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to peak 10 to 30 minutes after a stressful experience. Life stress and extent of support showed no link with the amount of enzyme secreted. However, the cortisol effects were striking, says Zilioli.
“Stress is adaptive,” he notes. It’s healthy to release high levels of cortisol right after stress—but also to recover quickly, releasing far less stress hormone soon after the immediate stressor ends.
Neither level of social support the children reported nor amount of their life stress had independent associations with stress hormone output. But children with the most stressful life events and the least social support showed the lowest peak for cortisol and the longest recovery time—the least healthy pattern.
On the other hand, kids with many stressful life events but lots of social support had stress hormone outputs that were no different from those of peers enjoying low-stress lives and either low or high support. Stress hormone patterns matter for health because, over time, poorly regulated cortisol may foster inflammation, increase blood pressure and heart rates, and raise the risk for cardiovascular disease.
“This is one way stress gets under the skin to affect health, and it shows how social support can promote resilience at a young age,” says Zilioli. Social support seems to be a health-promoting “buffer” during stressful times in children’s lives.
“We can imagine how it would help during the time of COVID-19, especially in low-SES families, where the pandemic is even more of a stressor,” he says. Programs at the family or community level that teach parents how to provide needed support for kids during these difficult times could be very helpful, Zilioli concludes.
Faculty Page: https://clasprofiles.wayne.edu/profile/fv0808
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”