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Keeping it together in stressful times

We are bombarded with stressful events and stimuli like never before. And if you’re still thinking bad things come in “threes,” talk to neuroscientist Hymie Anisman and he’ll tell you they come in “sixes.”

“Every time you turn around, there’s another stressor,” says Anisman, Carleton University’s Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience who admits he’s a Type-A personality who goes looking for trouble.

The kind of trouble he and other members of the university’s Research Centre for the Study of Stress Processes and Stress Management are finding is that you can fall apart if you don’t get the right kind of support or treatment.

The centre’s goal is to work in applied and clinical contexts as well as with community groups such as immigrants and the military, to assess prevention and intervention methods for different types of stressors.

“The way we appraise a potentially adverse event is critical,” Anisman explains, describing the glass-half-full-or-half-empty concept. “Some see it as a chore, others as a challenge and our attitudes towards an event colour what happens to us.”

In addition, getting the wrong kind of support – what Anisman calls “unsupport,” or being turned on by those you would reasonably expect to be supportive – can be devastating.

The research centre is engaged in examining a wide range of stress-related problems across the life span and is considering stress-related processes with respect to mental illnesses such as depression and addiction, as well as heart disease, autoimmune disorders and Parkinson’s disease.

Too much stress, says Anisman, can make you physically ill.

“The chemicals in our brain help us cope with stressors. When they are not functioning properly or are overly taxed, we compensate.”

A new study at the centre is looking at second-generation trauma among children of Holocaust survivors, as well as second- and third-generation Aboriginals whose parents and grandparents went to residential schools.

“Experiments are showing it’s not just behavior that is affected but also endocrine systems. We didn’t realize until recently how potent the effects of events like these are on subsequent generations.”

Researchers are also looking at students’ inability to seek help for mental illnesses. Apparently, up to one in five first-year students show symptoms of depression high enough to warrant seeking help.

“It’s hard enough to get proper treatment for depression or anxiety but getting people to go for treatment is even harder,” Anisman notes. “There is a stigma attached to it and this is very noticeable among first-generation immigrants.”

Another project is looking at the genetics of gambling and how it is tied to depression.

“Gambling may be a way of coping with a stressor but it also causes stress. We are trying to figure out the chemicals involved in gambling pathology and to identify genes associated with it.”

According to Anisman, most stressors are not short-acting and do not occur in isolation. “If they are uncontrollable or unpredictable, and are fairly persistent, things can get really bad.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recently announced Anisman will receive $815,514 for his research on depression.

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