Stress found to affect the brain’s speech center: Language patterns reveal a biological response to stress

The words you use may tell how stressed you are. A new study has found that language patterns show a biological response to stress. The study, headed by a team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, University of Arizona, Tucson, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aimed to determine whether stress biology is triggered by an automatic assessment of threat in the brain when a person is not necessarily aware.

For the study, the researchers asked 143 adult participants to wear audio recorders for 48 hours from the study period 2010 to 2013. The recorders were switched on every few minutes and captured more than 22,000 audio recordings. With these, the researchers transcribed and examined the recordings. They focused on the use of language and of “function words,” which include pronouns, articles, and adverbs. The participants use function words almost automatically. Therefore, these words may give hints regarding the participant’s state of mind. Past research revealed that people’s use of function words differs when they face a personal crisis or after terrorist attacks.

With the data gathered, they compared the speech used by each participant with the expression, in their white blood cells, of 50 genes known to be affected by distress. Gene expression is the process wherein genetic instructions are used to produce gene products, such as proteins, that perform essential functions.

The findings of the study revealed that the speech a person uses could determine the level of stress and possibly help determine people who are at risk of developing stress-related diseases. Participants with higher levels of stress talk less, but use more adverbs like “really” and “incredibly,” which can function as “intensifiers.” Moreover, they used lesser third-person pronouns, which suggest that they focus more on themselves than other people.

The study indicates that doctors might need to give more importance not only on what their patients say but also on how their patients speak when evaluating stress. Cole said that language patterns are more accurate predictors of disease-related molecular body profiles compared to people’s own analysis of stress, anxiety, or depression. He also said that stress-related speech could be observed automatically with the use of cellphone apps and digital assistants, proving an ongoing personal “stress temperature.”

Fast facts on stress

Stress, as defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health, is how the brain and body react to any stressor and it affects health. Each type of demand or stressor, such as exercise, work, school, big life changes or traumatic events, can be stressful. One fact about stress is that it affects everybody. It only differs on how people cope with stress or recover from stressful events. Still, stress is not entirely bad because it can motivate people to prepare or perform, like when they have upcoming interviews or tests. It can also be life-saving in some cases, like when something dangerous happens; the body prepares to face a threat or flee to safety. However, being stressed for a long time can put your health at risk. Chronic stress can affect body systems, such as the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems, and sleep. In line with this, stress can be managed to reduce or avoid these adverse health effects. Stress can be managed by recognizing the signs of the body’s reaction to stress, getting regular exercise, exploring stress coping programs, setting goals and priorities, socializing, and talking to health professionals. (Related: Calm your anxiety and stress with these 10 natural herbs.)

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