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Are Education and Stress Linked?

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Every briefcase-toting businessman and commuting career woman knows about daily stress from the ringing phones and crowded freeways that shape their lives.

So do people with less education, such as high school dropouts, report less day-to-day stress? Apparently so, finds a new study.

But the less educated don't get off the hook, say researchers. They suffer stress events more severely, to the point that it affects their health.

In a study just published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, researchers surveyed 1,031 adults for a period of eight consecutive days about stressful events occurring each day. The responses were then ranked by severity.

Researchers found those with a college degree reported feelings of stress almost half the time, or 44 percent of the days tracked.

By contrast, those with a high school degree or some college reported feeling stressed 38 percent of the days. And for those without a high school degree, stress was reported on just 30 percent of the days.

Severe Health Effects

But despite their having the lowest number of stressful days, the group without a high school degree had stressful experiences that were more severe, so much so that it affected their physical and mental health. Negative health effects included nausea, headaches, chest pain and fever.

"Less advantaged people are less healthy on a daily basis and are more likely to have downward turns in their health," said Joseph G. Grzywacz, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and co-author of the study.

"The downward turns in health were connected with daily stressors, and the effect of daily stressors on their health is much more devastating for the less advantaged," Grzywacz added.

Though other studies have shown how stress affects health, they have typically focused on chronic stressors like a major illness or the loss of a loved one. None have examined the stress that occurs from everyday experiences and hassles.

"What makes this study unique is that we asked people what happened to them each day of the study, and it was done with a national sample," said Grzywacz.

Rainy Day Blues

The authors of the study note there may be differences in the way people from different socioeconomic groups perceive stress.

A few rainy days, for example, might be a bit gloomy but will have no real impact on a professional office worker. But for a construction worker or outdoor laborer, a week of rain represents a significant loss of income.

The difference in the number of stressful days experienced by less educated and more educated people might also be due to the communities in which they live.

Over time, people with less education who live in poorer communities may grow accustomed to daily stress like crime and noise, says Dr. Bruce Rabin, professor of pathology and psychiatry and medical director at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"People with less education may have adapted and they're not perceiving some events as stressful," says Rabin.

"It's habituation - you have chronic exposure to stress so you give up," he adds. "It doesn't activate the stress response in the brain."

Grzywacz says future research could focus on the different impacts acute, chronic and daily stressors have on health. He also notes the lack of research on why less educated people report less daily stress, when previous research indicates they experience more acute and chronic stress.

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