Stress Can Predict Decreases In Social Interaction

According to a study conducted by Dartmouth College published in the journal “Emotion,” individuals who experience high levels of stress may exhibit reduced social interaction the following day. The study found that there is a correlation between elevated stress and a decrease in social interaction.

The senior author of the study, Meghan Meyer, an assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College and director of the Dartmouth Social Neuroscience Lab, explains the purpose of the study: "For our study, we wanted to investigate how feeling stressed impacts the amount that we socialize with others.  Our findings show that people who experienced more stress on one day socialized less with others the next day. This effect may persist for up to two days later after someone has had a stressful day."

The previous research on the effect of stress on social interaction in humans has mainly relied on self-reported data, which can be biased. Dartmouth's study aimed to investigate this topic in a more objective manner, by using mobile phone sensing data obtained through the StudentLife app. The study found that individuals who experienced higher levels of stress on one day had decreased social interaction the following day. This effect persisted for up to two days after the stressful day. The findings support previous studies conducted on animals, such as rodents, which showed that stress-induced social avoidance was a phenomenon that occurs in other species as well.

The study conducted by Dartmouth involved 99 undergraduate students who agreed to participate in a two-month-long observational period. Using the StudentLife app, data such as sleep patterns, physical movement, and time spent at home were passively collected from these participants. The sample of participants was comprised of 56% females and 44% males, and all data was kept anonymous in order to protect the students’ privacy.

The app measured participants' daily social interactions by detecting human conversation through the phone's microphone while avoiding the actual recording of conversations or sounds for ethical reasons. To gauge participants' stress levels, the app randomly asked them once a day between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. to rate their stress on a scale from 1 (no stress) to 16 (extreme stress) using a mobile photographic stress meter. This method involved selecting an image that best represented their stress level and was developed by other researchers, proven to strongly correlate with formal psychological stress assessments, and deemed effective for longitudinal sampling due to its engaging and user-friendly nature.

With the vast amount of data collected, the researchers were able to analyze stress-social interaction patterns over an extended period for each participant, taking into account other variables such as sleep, movement, and time at home that were also passively measured by the smartphones and have been linked to stress. The team employed multiple models to assess the impact of stress on social interaction and evaluated whether the stress-social interaction patterns remained consistent even when accounting for these other variables.

Co-author Alex da Silva, a Ph.D. student in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, states that their research uses mobile sensing technology and is one of the first to investigate the connection between stress and socialization over time. The team's results provide strong evidence for stress leading to social avoidance in students. According to da Silva, the findings indicate that elevated stress levels predict a decrease in social interaction the following day, after considering factors such as movement, sleep, and time spent at home.

The relationship between stress and socialization was not influenced by gender. The results showed a correlation between increased time spent at home and a decrease in both movement and social interaction the following day. Conversely, higher levels of social interaction were associated with more movement and less time spent at home. One noteworthy finding was that stress predicted decreased social interaction the next day, but the opposite was not true. The amount of social interaction on a given day did not predict stress levels the following day, suggesting that the relationship between stress and social interaction may be unidirectional, with stress causing decreased social interaction.

Meyer also remarks that college is a stage in young adults' lives when many mental health problems arise. At the same time, previous studies have shown that strong social connections can benefit mental health by providing protection against various mental health issues. Meyer states that stress is a major risk factor for developing mental health conditions, often preceding depression and anxiety disorders. If students feel stressed and withdraw from their social network, they may miss the chance to use social interaction as a buffer for their mental health problems. Withdrawing from others at a time when they may need support the most could be detrimental to their mental well-being. The research team suggests that mobile sensing and physiological measurements can be utilized in future studies to explore stress, social avoidance, and the potential biological stress responses involved. It is vital to take these factors into consideration when determining the cause of decreased social interaction and related mental illnesses.

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15 February, 2023

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