AS Unit 2: End of topic application activity – controllable stressors and behavioural immunisation

New stress research: AS Psychology (AQA A)

Published on the Scientific American Blog (November 6th 2012) @scicurious has written a piece entitled “It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it”. The post has the potential to provide the basis for an end of topic application task that will allow students to draw on a range of concepts in the “stress” section of the specification (AQA A, AS, Unit 2), whilst allowing a stretching “AS appropriate” dabble into a number of approaches/issues/debates in Psychology.

Findings, conclusions and implications

In a nutshell the research (Varela et al, 2012; published in The Journal of Neuroscience) reported in the post suggests that being exposed to a controllable stressor increases activation in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain.  It is argued that this increased activation might play a role in what is referred to as “behavioural immunisation” with the increased activity somehow lessening the impact of future stressors. The implication is that those who have experienced a number of controllable stressors will be better equipped to cope with the impact of future unavoidable traumatic stress, than those who have not had opportunity to build up this “resistance” or “protection”.

In the study rats exposed to controllable (avoidable) tail shocks (read my previous post for a balanced discussion of the ethics of this sort of procedure) experienced greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex. The authors conclude that the rats with more responsive neurons in this area might be better able to cope with and adapt to further stressors.  The research is used to suggest that in humans it might be possible to stimulate this brain area in order to develop a therapy to help people deal with traumatic stress after it has occurred. It also seems to imply that it is a good idea (like the Hardy individual) to seek out controllable stressors to help you cope with future ones, a bit like the idea that people say children should eat a handful of dirt to build up their resistance to germs.

A classroom activity: application and extension

As this piece of research is not directly part of the specification (AQA A), and as such students are unlikely to refer to it in an exam, I think this research would work well at the end of first teaching of the stress topic (when students need to consolidate their knowledge, look for ways to link concepts for better retention and practice recognising when to use their knowledge).

Here is one way to use this research in the classroom:

  1. Present students with 2 fictional characters who are both facing an uncontrollable chronic stressor (e.g. a relative is seriously unwell). Reveal some background detail about these characters including their previous experiences with stressors. Choose a range of controllable, uncontrollable, physical (e.g. running a marathon) and emotional stressors and ensure that one character has had much more exposure to controllable stressors than the other.
  2. Ask students to discuss how (or if) the characters responses to the stressors might differ and the impact of the stress on each character.
  3. Share the research in this post when it feels appropriate and ask students to discuss the conclusions in light of what they have learned about stress from the course.

This might work best as a group task as applying knowledge can feel daunting when students perceive that they haven’t been told “the answer” before and there is an element of creativity.

Possible outcomes: Specification links

Stress-related illness and workplace stress

The research implies that people who are exposed to controllable stressors and have experienced “behavioural immunisation” should have lower rates of stress-related illness. Research suggests that stressful jobs are those where the demand is high but the control is low which may, according to this research, have a neurological basis. This research might be used to suggest that people in demanding jobs but with a large degree of control may be better able to cope with other stressors in their life outside of work if the workplace controllable stress “immunises” them.

Individual differences – Hardiness

This research could suggest that the Hardy personality has a biological basis. For example, the Hardy individual may differ to the non-Hardy individual in terms of the difference in the responsiveness of neurons in their medial prefrontal cortex. This brain difference could result from a biological source (e.g. genetics) or their environment as the Hardy person who seeks out “challenges” may experience the behavioural immunisation which may protect them from the negative impact of stress. There is an opportunity for a nature-nurture discussion here.

It is also worth considering that, like most  explanations based on the biological approach, there is an element of reductionism that could be discussed. Identification of brain areas and activity of neurons is useful, but it is not clear how the greater responsiveness of these neurons protects individuals and what this actually does to our behaviour to help us “cope better”, this is likely to be influenced by a number of other factors. It would be interesting to know whether seeing others (Social Learning) experience and cope successfully with stressors has any impact of our ability to deal with our own future stressors. This could still be argued to operate at a neural level if the greater activation of the medial prefrontal cortex is playing a role in processing memories of coping strategies or helping to plan a course of action.

Stress management

The research implies that a biological approach to stress management techniques could be appropriate (stimulating the neurons involved). Animal research cited in the Scientific American blog post suggests that this may be a useful application. If storing memories of coping strategies has any part to play, however, the lack of direct experience – as opposed to stimulation of the neurons in isolation – may limit the usefulness of this therapy.

It is also possible to discuss CBT in the context of this research as CBT involves a “go out and try it” element and in Hardiness training clients are instructed to seek out “challenges” to overcome. Stress inoculation therapy is based on the premise that the individual learns to change the way they think about stress to protect or “inoculate” themselves against future stress.  The effectiveness of CBT might be better explained in terms of the increasing activity in the neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex (a biological approach) than through changes in thought processes (cognitive approach), suggesting that CBT may work via neurological mechanisms. This again highlights, to students, the need to consider different approaches when explaining behaviour.

I am sure there are lots of other ways to engage this research with the specification and students will always surprise you with the links they make that you didn’t see. With the Olympics still fresh in people’s minds, you could ask students whether athletes should be better at coping with traumatic stress. Tom Daley’s experiences with parental ill-health and bereavement might be an interesting source of discussion (this could be an interesting enquiry for an Extended Project).

Assessment of understanding and application of knowledge

This type of activity allows you quickly to identify the following:

  1. Students who have little comprehension of what they studied and are quiet and confused needing much group and/or teacher support.
  2. Students who “got it” at the time but have forgotten it all (because they’ll “just revise it all later” for the exam?!). This student is likely to be very reliant on their peers reminding them of the concepts but able to discuss when reminded.
  3. Students who have a sound knowledge and recall concepts and where they might be relevant but lacks confidence in sharing the application, pointed out an appropriate link but not explaining or developing it.
  4. Students who are excelling on all fronts and finding creative ways to apply their knowledge (these students may not be your “best writers” so note who they are and find ways to nurture their thinking skills and support them with writing in preparation for A2).
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