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ANALYSIS: Does stress have a colour?

Stress. That feeling of strain and pressure we experience in relation to events that threaten the smooth course of our daily lives.

Along with the emotion of stress, our body begins to prepare for fight or flight, releasing a cascade of hormones aimed at survival in the short term, but with many negative health consequences in the long term.

The question of whether individual racial groups do or do not feel stress pales when one considers that stress is not unique to our species. By virtue of the way our nervous systems have evolved, all mammals feel stress. Survival is ultimately a struggle and stress an adaptation to cope.

Us primates, however? With our big brains we take matters a step further, uniquely seeming able to “think” ourselves into disease states. For example, a 1997 Stanford study found that low ranking baboons, without significant support from their troops, tend to have poorer social connections, raised levels of stress hormones and generally inferior health.

Stress is therefore not exclusively a product of urbanisation and the frantic pace of modern life, but rather something innate to our arm of the evolutionary tree.

Stress related to socioeconomic status

Even so, if we all feel stress simply because of the way we’re neurologically wired, could there still be some meaningful difference in just how stressed various population groups may be?

US research shows that difference in exposure to stress is attributable to social standing and access to resources. A lower socioeconomic status is reliably associated with social and environmental conditions that contribute to a chronic stress burden, including crowding, crime, noise pollution and discrimination.

Accounting for this variable dramatically reduces the difference in psychological distress between racial groups, but this often fails to explain the entire picture. A small difference, often hard to peg down, remains.

As an example, studies from the late 1980’s revealed that low-status African-American people reported higher levels of distress compared to those with high-status, but also higher levels of stress than low-status white people.

Jumping forward to the year 2000, the data collected as part of the MacArthur Foundation's study of “successful aging” painted a different picture. Low socioeconomic status, elderly African-American people were found to be less stressed than their white equivalents.

In this case, the hidden variable that remained after accounting for socioeconomic status seemed to be connected to community. The authors speculated that elderly members of the black community remain more integrated into their communities, and are afforded greater status, providing a cultural factor that socioeconomic status alone did not fully account for.

Black people experienced more stressful life events

Once you’ve accounted for major variables such as socioeconomic factors, levels of stress appears to be very amenable as a country goes through changes.

Perceived stress (in contrast to objectively negative life events) and perceived persecution or discrimination are additional factors that influence how stressed a group may be. On the other hand, social support and social networks provide a buffer.

Despite all the constraints, when we restrict our analysis to relatively broad terms, what does South African data tell us about President Jacob Zuma’s claim?

The only large scale and nationally representative study in democratic South Africa so far was conducted between 2002 and 2004. The South African Stress and Health Study included 4,351 adults of all races and ethnic backgrounds across the country’s 9 provinces. The participants were asked about negative life events, relationship stress, domestic violence, social strain and early-life stress.

The finding? On average, and accounting for population size, black people were found to experience more stressful life events than coloured people, who experienced more stressful events than people of Indian descent, with white people experiencing the fewest stressful life events.

It is important to emphasise that the data on which these conclusions are based is dated. It would be interesting to see if this analysis has shifted over the past decade or more.

Black-white difference in SA remained

The conclusion shouldn’t be drawn that these levels are somehow innate to the different racial groups, however. The data still needs to be corrected for the variables at play. These include demographics, a higher income, education, assets-owned-by-household and social support, each of which have been independently associated with a lower degree of psychological distress.

Accounting for socioeconomic status alone, the difference in stress levels between the South African racial groups were all but eliminated in the South African Stress and Health Study. Interestingly, however, the black/white difference, although significantly diminished, remained. To equalise these groups, you also needed to account for an increased number of negative life events, the exposure to which is one of the downstream factors affecting socioeconomic tiers.

In South Africa, stress therefore seems associated with socioeconomic status too. As people’s socioeconomic status rose, they experienced fewer negative life events in general and gained access to more coping resources. Greater financial freedoms permitted for higher levels of education, which were associated with fewer negative life events in the 12 month period studied.

Most certainly not a white man’s disease

In the final instance, what can we say about stress in South Africa as experienced by the different population groups?

For the most part, stress is a universal experience. Yet exactly how much you stress is shaped by your socioeconomic status and associated variables, like negative life events experienced. However, once you peer a little further behind the curtain, international studies support that individual group experiences of stress is also influenced by culture and how we shape our social and support networks.

Ultimately, only the broad commentary here can be taken with any degree of certainty. The South African data presented is dated and the country has undergone so many socio-political fluxes that new data sets are required to make any fine comparisons.

Is stress a white man’s disease? Most certainly not. Does stress have a colour? Objectively, no. Stress does not seem to be innately tied to our skin colour, but it is fundamentally linked to societal or political pressures that may either cause stress directly or isolate a group from the resources that serve in buffering life stress. 

Petrie Jansen van Vuuren is a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand, with a postgraduate background in neuroscience research at the University of Pretoria.

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