1. Background

A vicious cycle between socio-economic factors and chronic psychological stress that has detrimental effects on mental health is widely accepted: On the one hand, social, financial, occupational, or family problems that cause psychological distress can worsen psychological well-being, trigger the onset of a disorder or prevent a remission (e.g. Boscarino, 2006) and can even increase the risk of revictimisation and trauma (Brewin, Andrews & Valentine, 2000). On the other hand, early retirement, inability to work or a change in affect regulations, social behavior and parenting style as well as lower general performance related to mental health problems might cause adverse socio-economic effects (e.g. Kiernan & Huerta, 2008). Additionally, the direct mental health costs caused by an increased morbidity or mortality can further increase the individual and societal burden of poor health (e.g. Walker et al., 2003).

Besides the reciprocal relation between psychological distress and socio-economic factors, there is another analogous relation between biological markers of stress and psychological distress: Genetic predispositions, such as polymorphisms in the glucocorticoid receptor gene, which are associated with an increased stress response, significantly increase the susceptibility to stress and risk for the development of anxiety disorders and other stress-related psychological disorders like depression (e.g. Wuest et al., 2004). Similarly, a low socio-economic status, which causes stress and an unbalanced diet can have a detrimental effect on cell division and thus affect the biological makeup (e.g. Cherkas et al., 2006).

Psychological distress is the central link between adverse factors on the macroscopic socioeconomic level and biological markers of stress on the microscopic biological level. But how does the organism “remember” psychological distress which causes long-term negative outcomes (which are related to socio-economic factors)? At this point epigenetics comes into play. Epigenetic mechanisms regulate which genes in the individual become activated or silenced. This leads to a long-lasting biological adaptation of an individual to a certain environment. In research on the epigenetic consequences of psychological distress, a dysregulation in biological systems that determines the stress response has been shown (Fish et al., 2006). Thus, in individuals that are exposed to various stressors and that experience psychological distress, epigenetic mechanisms cause an adaptation of the biological setup: the individual becomes increasingly sensitive for further stressors, which can also lead to a general maladaptive hyper-arousal (Radtke et al., 2011). In terms of socio-economic factors, among the first studies in this field it has been proven that social status affects epigenetic alterations as well (Borghol et al., 2012).

2. Research Questions:

In a first article based on SOEP-data, we were able to verify the negative impact of stress and socio-economic strain on psychological well-being (Helms, Richter, Wagner & Weierstall, subm.). Socio-economic stress and the subjective perception of stress accounted for the largest proportion of variance. For this reason, we would like to extend the research by two additional research questions:

1) As the negative consequences of socio-economic stress are significant and widespread - also in Germany - on a subclinical level (Gerstorf et al., 2010), we want to assess distress in the SOEP-IS sample with a questionnaire that assesses subjective psychological stress on the cognitive, physiological, emotional and behavioral level. Stress in the current survey is only covered by a single question, which does not allow the differentiation of different sub-clinical stress levels. We want to examine the association of subjectively perceived stress reported in the single item with significant functional impairments that can be found in stress-related clinical symptomatology. Moreover, we want to investigate whether socio-economic stress already predisposes an individual to show subclinical soft-signs of mental health problems that might manifest clinically at a later stage.

2) We want to study whether the psychological distress caused by socio-economic factors is also related to epigenetic markers of stress and whether the biological adaptation to an adverse environment is a limiting factor that prevents the individual from breaking the vicious cycle of socio-economic- and chronic psychological stress.

3. Scientific Motivation and Potential for Integration in the SOEP

The two research questions aim to understand the interrelation between socio-economical, psychological and biological factors associated with stress-related mental health problems. The adverse effects of socio-economic stress on psychological well-being have received increased attention because of the rapid growth of studies on the relation between socio-economic factors and mental health. However, altered physiological processes that, on the one hand, are the consequence of continuous exposure with stressors and that, on the other hand, might constrain a person’s ability to produce changes in the socio-economic functioning and coping with stress have been neglected especially in populations with a sub-clinical burden. The motivation that underlies the proposed research is to broaden the knowledge on the aforementioned relationship within an interdisciplinary approach and to generate insights that might improve mental health services. It further allows studying various other relations within the different variables assessed in the SOEP-IS sample, as this research would add valuable psychological and biological data to the project. In case of a negative evaluation of the assessment of biological markers, the assessment of sub-clinical psychological stress symptoms will still be of great interest for the researchers.

  • Department of Psychology
Funding sources
Name Finanzierungstyp Kategorie Project no.
Exzellenzinitiative third-party funds research funding program 461/14
Further information
Period: 01.02.2014 – 31.12.2014