When Stressing Over Social Status Becomes Toxic

In Stanford Magazine, Kristin Sainani talks to researchers in psychiatry and behavioral science to examine the causes of stress and the differences between “good” stress (i.e. the short-term stress of working on deadline that is later paid off by the euphoric sense of accomplishment) and “bad” stress (i.e. chronic stress). Here, a health psychologist discusses one of the most toxic kinds of stresses: stress over social status and rejection:

The point at which chronic stress turns toxic is when it becomes unrelenting and traumatic, and when sufferers lack control and social support. “What we tend to mean when we talk about stress are the daily experiences of time scarcity, role uncertainty, social conflict and pressure,” says Kelly McGonigal, PhD ’04, a health psychologist, author and Stanford lecturer. “I’ve become even more convinced that the type of ‘stress’ that is toxic has more to do with social status, social isolation and social rejection. It’s not just having a hard life that seems to be toxic, but it’s some of the social poisons that can go along with stigma or poverty.”

In a series of classic studies in Britain, dubbed the Whitehall studies for the road in London where the government resides, researchers examined nearly 30,000 employees in the British civil service. All had secure jobs, livable wages and access to the same health care; they also worked within a precise hierarchy, with six levels of ranks. The researchers found that heart disease and mortality rates increased steeply with every step down the ladder. Those on the lower rungs tended to lead less healthy lives—they smoked more, for example—but even factoring in lifestyle differences, the lowest-ranking employees had twice the mortality rate of the highest-ranking individuals. The researchers attributed this disparity to the psychological stresses of low status and lack of control.

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Photo: The Crystal Fairy