OLDER AND MORE STRESSED
The article “Splintered 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.
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.
HOW TO RELAX
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.
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.
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.
Never in my quite long life have I written to editors before, but the rat story was so delightful, I had to give you strokes (to encourage your positive behavior). I always love your magazine, but the Lambert article is a gem among gems.
I read “The Eyes Have It” [Illusions], by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, with interest because I have early (“dry”) macular edema, a condition that affects my eyesight. I was unable to fuse Albert Einstein’s face clearly in the hybrid images. My inability to experience this illusion may be of interest in research because it implies, to me, a major influence of the macula not readily explained in the article.
To describe my macular defect in detail, I have sufficient vision to read a telephone book with 2.0 diopter correction and to see ordinary highway signs at ordinary distances with no correction, but I have trouble fusing small fine lines in near vision and seeing straight lines as straight.
I am an 83-year-old retired psychiatrist who has had a great interest in neuropsychiatry.
R. C. Rosan
In regards to Kurt Kleiner’s story “Lunchtime Leniency” [Head Lines]: others have observed that rulings are harsher when the judges are hungry. In “The Rape of the Lock,” first published in 1712, Alexander Pope wrote this chilling couplet:
The hungry judges
soon the sentence sign
And wretches hang that
jurymen may dine.
I was interested to read about the study of Israeli rulings on convicts’ parole requests. Before attributing the higher rate of approvals at the beginning of a session to the breakfast or snack the judge ate just before start-ing, I would want to know what else the judge may have been doing before beginning the day or resuming the proceedings.
From my experience as a judge in Canada, I know that judges often organize their cases according to the time they are likely to require. Shorter cases are often dealt with first to allow busy prosecutors and defense attorneys who have narrowed the issue to one requiring only a few minutes of the judge’s time to leave court and get on with the rest of their day. The cases are often reshuffled during a recess based on what the lawyers have told the judge before the recess about how long their cases are likely to take.
If the Israeli judges’ approach is similar, that could explain why the requests that are dealt with at the beginning of the day or immediately after a recess are more likely to be approved. The longer, more difficult cases reserved for later in the day are not as likely to be slam dunks for the defense.
That is not to say that justice would not be better served if judges spent more of their recesses having a snack (or getting some brief exercise) instead of reviewing and prioritizing their nextseveral cases. Limited judicial resources and the volume of work at busier courthouses can take a toll on the quality of judicial decisions, as well as on the health of judges.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN HERMES
In the solution to Head Games puzzle number 5, you name Mercury as a figure in Greek mythology. Mercury was, in fact, a figure in Roman mythology.