Stress: Predicting Who is at Risk

Medical Reviewer

How big an issue is stress? At an everyday level we know that stress plays in part in everything from headaches to skin conditions to high blood pressure and heart conditions. Estimates vary but visits to the family doctor can account for as much as 90 percent of stress-related ailments. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America   (ADAA) provide a breakdown of stress and anxiety related conditions but the sad fact is that anxiety disorders affect 18 percent of the U.S. population - a staggering 40 million adults.

They say every little helps and on that basis it's useful to know of anything that might pinpoint those most vulnerable to stress before its worst effects take hold. Some people are better at self-monitoring than others, but that's no guarantee of avoiding the worst effects of stress. Then of course we have the sticky issue of predicting who is most likely to come off worse. Stress affects people in very different ways so we can't assume an across the board reaction from everyone exposed to the same situation.

One answer, it appears, is to monitor our own pulse. Professor Jean-Phillipe Gouin and colleagues recently published a paper in the journal Stress. Gouin tracked the progress of 76 university students during periods of low and high stress (e.g. exam times). Specifically, the team monitored heart rate variability while students were relaxing, while they thought about the things that worried them most and they tracked moods from times of low to high stress.

The upshot of the findings was that students who exhibited a less variable heartbeat when they worried were more likely to be highly stressed when faced with a situation like exams. Professor Gouin points out that a variable heartbeat during rest is good because it shows the parasympathetic nervous system is working well. This is the system that helps us to conserve energy and revitalize.

It's important that our reactions can differentiate between a real threat and something perceived as a threat otherwise we're running hot all the time. Whether the findings might be helpful as a diagnostic tool to help identify those most likely to suffer a stress reaction will take a little thinking through. The tools are available but how and whether they are applied depends on the situation, the interest and the application.


Concordia University. (2014, September 30). How to predict who will suffer the most from stress.  ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 3, 2014 from