Research into stress and immune system functioning

AQA Psychology A, PSYA2 Stress

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Acute Stressors: Examination Stress (1)

Keicolt-Glaser et al. (1984)

  • Natural experiment investigating weather the stress of short-term stressors (exams) had an effect on immune system functioning in medical students.
  • Blood samples were taken one month before examinations (low stress) and during the exam period its self (high stress).
  • Immune system activity was measured by measuring NK cell activity in the blood.


  • NK cell activity was significantly reduced in the second sample compared to the first.
  • This suggests that short term, predictable stressors reduce immune system functioning, increasing the vulnerability of illness.


  • +ve's = quantifiable results from concentrations of NK cells.
  • -ve's = medical students are not average students, does not take into account other stressors.
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Acute Stressors: Examination Stress (2)

Marucha et al. (1998)

  • Did a mouth punch biopsy on students during the summer and 3 days before exams.
  • The mouth punch created a small wound in the mouth.
  • Marucha timed how long it took for the wound to heal.


  • Wounds in the exam period took 40% longer to heal than those during the summer holidays.
  • Shows that stress has an effect on the time taken for wounds to heal.


  • +ve's = Shows visually how stress affects the immune system.
  • -ve's = Students may just have low white blood cell levels, so wounds take longer to heal anyway.
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Chronic Stressors: Relationship Stress

Malarkey et al (1994)

  • Studied 90 newly-wed couples over a 24-hour period.
  • They were asked to discuss and resolve marital issues that are likely to produce conflict (i.e. financial discussion).


  • Marital conflict produced significant changes in the levels of adrenaline and noradrenalin, which could lead to poorer immune functioning.
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Stress: Enhancing the immune system

Evans et al (1994)

  • Looked at the activity of the antibody - slgA - which helps protect against infection.
  • Evans arranged for students to give talks to other students (mild but acute stressor)


  • During the talk to other students - levels of slgA increased.
  • slgA levels during examinations (last over several weeks) decreased.


  • Stress may have two effects on the immune system.
    • Up-regulation for short-term acute stress.
    • Down-regulation for chronic stress.
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Segerstrom and Miller (2004)

Meta-analysis of 293 studies over 30 years

Three Conclusions

  • Short-term, acute stressors can boost the immune system, prompting to ready itself for infections or other challenges to the integrity of the body.
  • Long-term, chronic stressors led to suppression of the immune system - the most chronic stressors were associated with the most global suppression of immunity.
  • The longer the stress, the more the immune system shifted from potentially adapted changes to potentially detrimental changes.
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Evaluation: Lazarus (1992)

Lazarus (1992) suggests there are various reasons why a relationship between stress and illness is difficult to establish.

  • Health is affected by many different factors (including genetic influences, lifestyle, etc.). As a result, there maybe little variance left that can be accounted for by stress.
  • Health is generally fairly stable and slow to change. As a result, it makes it difficult to demonstrate that exposure to particular stressors have caused a change in health.
  • To demonstrate how stress affects long-term health would involve continuous measurement over time. This would be expensive and impractical, therefore most research has concentrated on relatively short periods of time.
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