Letters to the Editors, January/February 2012

Letters to the Editor about the September/October 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind

The articleSplintered by Stress,” by Mathias V. Schmidt and Lars Schwabe, was very interesting. Have any studies been done on stress as it relates to a person’s age? Being an older male (I’m 64) in the workforce, I have definitely noticed that my ability to handle stress in general has declined over the years.
George Stewart
Maitland, Fla.

SCHMIDT AND SCHWABE REPLY: There is indeed some evidence that the way we handle stress and the way we are affected by it change with age. Studies show that older people typically have higher stress hormone levels throughout the day than younger people and are less able to terminate a sudden response to acute stress—they recover more slowly. Moreover, the brain regions that undergo the most rapid functional decline during aging (for example, the hippocampus) are also those that are involved in the regulation of our stress response systems. That does not mean, however, that older individuals are, by definition, not able to cope with stress. Individuals vary widely in their responses, determined both by genetic predisposition and by life history.

In general, exercise, a healthy diet and a good night’s sleep should help both younger and older individuals to withstand the potentially adverse effects of stress.

I very much enjoyed Robert Epstein’s article “Fight the Frazzled Mind,” but I also feel that a major aspect of stress management needs to be clarified in future studies. Epstein describes four stress managing competencies: avoidance, source management, relaxation and thought management. Of these four, avoidance and source management are named as being the most effective. I believe the relative effectiveness of each competency has much to do with the fact that 83 percent of the study group was untrained to handle stress. It seems obvious to me that a person, unprepared to handle stress, would do better through avoidance than by attempting to use an unpracticed skill such as relaxation. What needs to be studied is the long-term effect of relaxation and thought management on stress.

Millions of people around the world who practice relaxation and thought management have found that the list of stress inducers in their life becomes shorter and shorter through the use of these techniques over a long period. Avoidance and source management may shorten the list in the present, but eventually we all must deal with life as it comes. That is where the long-term effects of relaxation and thought management bring huge benefits.

In other words, if you are heavily stressed and have no training in coping skills, avoidance and source management will indeed reduce your stress. But only with the long-term practice of relaxation and thought management will you have the possibility of eliminating the majority of stressors altogether.
Joe Lovotti
Agawam, Mass.

As a successful manager of and occasional educator about stress, I enjoyed Epstein’s article until I was shocked by his heavy emphasis on planning. Making and struggling to adhere to plans in an uncertain world constitute one of the greatest stressors there is. Meditation—which Epstein praises—teaches us that flexibility reduces stress, whereas rigidity escalates it exponentially, so learning to bend with the wind and alter plans when needed is key.
Scott Teitsworth
Portland, Ore.

Great rat story! Kelly Lambert’s writing in “A Tale of Two Rodents” is a blissful mix of humor and erudition, and the illustrations by Kate Francis are fabulous.

This article was originally published with the title "September/October 2011."

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