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Lifetime stress exposure and health:
A review of contemporary assessment methods
and biological mechanisms
Grant S. Shields
|George M. Slavich
Department of Psychology, University of
California, Davis, CA, USA
Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology
and Department of Psychiatry and
Biobehavioral Sciences, University of
California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
George M. Slavich, Cousins Center for
Psychoneuroimmunology, University of
California, Los Angeles, UCLA Medical Plaza
300, Room 3156, Los Angeles,
CA 90095‐7076, USA.
Society in Science–Branco Weiss Fellowship;
Brain and Behavior Research Foundation,
Grant/Award Number: 23958; National
Institutes of Health, Grant/Award Number:
Life stress is a central construct in health research because it is
associated with increased risk for a variety of serious mental and
physical health problems, including anxiety disorders, depression,
cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer's disease,
certain cancers, and other diseases of aging. In this review, we
examine how lifetime stress exposure contributes to elevated
disease risk and explore ongoing measurement and scientific issues
related to this topic. To accomplish these goals, we first review
existing instruments that have been developed for assessing
perceived stress, self‐reported life events, interviewer‐assessed life
stressors, and lifetime stress exposure. Next, we describe laboratory‐
based tasks that have been used for characterizing individual
differences in psychological and biological stress reactivity. These
methods have yielded an enormous amount of data showing how
life stress influences the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–
adrenal axis, hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis, sympathetic–
adrenal–medullary axis, and immune system, and how such
processes can in turn cause allostatic load and biological embedding
of the stress effect at the level of the human brain and genome. At
the same time, many critical measurement and scientific issues
remain unresolved, and we discuss these topics last while describing
some pressing issues and opportunities for future research on stress
disease, health, life stress, measurement, risk, STRAIN
The concept of “stress”is ubiquitous in daily life, which is both a blessing and a curse for stress researchers. On the
one hand, stress has long been readily understood as something that negatively affects health (e.g., Rosengren,
Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017;11:e12335.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltdwileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/spc3 1of17
Orth‐Gomér, Wedel, & Wilhelmsen, 1993). On the other hand, the term “stress”has been associated with many
different processes—including both life stress exposure and the psychological and biological consequences of such
exposures—making the literature on stress imprecise and complicated. Improving how scientists conceptualize
and assess stress exposure and reactivity has the potential to refine thinking and research on this important topic,
but critical definitional and measurement issues are often overlooked, thus impeding progress.
The goal of this review is to provide an overview of conceptual and measurement issues in contemporary
life stress research, and a summary of the present‐day understanding of how stress exposure occurring over
the life course affects health. First, we define stress and its various forms. Second, we describe self‐report
and interview‐based instruments for assessing stress, with an eye toward newer technologies that have enabled
investigators to assess lifetime stress exposure in a more low‐cost, nuanced manner. Third, we describe
experimental paradigms that have been developed for characterizing individual differences in acute stress
reactivity in the laboratory. Fourth, we survey the present literature linking stress to poor health outcomes.
Finally, we highlight some pressing measurement and scientific issues, and suggest possible avenues for
2|STRESS, ITS DEFINITION, AND RELEVANCE FOR HEALTH
Researchers have proposed that there are several different forms of life stress exposure, with each form having
potentially different consequences for health. In this context, a stressor has been defined as any situation, or set
of external demands, that requires an organism to expend resources to adapt or cope with its circumstances
(Monroe, 2008). Situations that are most likely to be categorized as “stressful,”in turn, are those that threaten
the self and violate personal expectations, coupled with a perceived lack of coping ability (Lebois, Hertzog,
Slavich, Barrett, & Barsalou, 2016; Slavich & Cole, 2013). Stressors can either be acute life events that occur
and cease relatively quickly, such as a life‐threatening accident or learning of impending company‐wide layoffs,
or they can occur as chronic difficulties that persist over time, such as caretaking for a terminally ill spouse or
lacking a stable place to live (Brown & Harris, 1978; Slavich, 2016). Although conceptually separate, these forms
of stress are often related. For example, an acute life event, such as the termination of employment, can
sometimes (but not always) initiate a chronic difficulty, such as persistent unemployment or an ensuing financial
difficulty; likewise, a chronic difficulty, such as living in a low‐income neighborhood, can sometimes (but not
always) give rise to specific acute life events, such as witnessing a major crime. Finally, lifetime stress exposure
refers to the total sum of the acute life events and chronic difficulties that a person has experienced over his
or her lifespan.
Intuition tells us that greater lifetime stress exposure is associated with poorer health, and research generally
supports this idea. For example, greater stress exposure has been found to predict the onset or exacerbation of
several mental health problems, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as several physical
health conditions including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and Alzheimer's disease (Bangasser &
Valentino, 2014; Juster, McEwen, & Lupien, 2010; G. E. Miller, Chen, & Parker, 2011; Myin‐Germeys,
Krabbendam, Delespaul, & Van Os, 2003; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012; Slavich & Irwin, 2014). Greater stress
exposure can also impair cognitive function (Shields, Sazma, & Yonelinas, 2016; Shields, Trainor, Lam, & Yonelinas,
2016)—presumably degrading quality of life (Diamond, 2013)—and is a strong predictor of earlier mortality
(Rosengren et al., 1993). Multiple models have been proposed to account for these findings, and these models
have been discussed in several excellent reviews (e.g., Doom & Gunnar, 2013; Heim & Binder, 2012; Hostinar
& Gunnar, 2013; Koenig, Walker, Romeo, & Lupien, 2011; McEwen, 1998; Nederhof & Schmidt, 2012). At the
same time, not all individuals are at equal risk for poor health following stress (e.g., due to individual differences
in stress responsivity), making it important to assess both lifetime stress exposure and stress reactivity (Boyce &
Ellis, 2005; Slavich, 2015).
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3|ASSESSING LIFE STRESS EXPOSURE
Exposure to life stress has been measured in numerous ways over the years and has included assessing individuals'
overall perceived stress burden, as well as their experience of specific life stressors. Commonly used methods have
included self‐report perceived stress scales (e.g., Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983; Levenstein et al., 1993),
self‐report life event checklists (e.g., Brugha & Cragg, 1990; Gray, Litz, Hsu, & Lombardo, 2004; Holmes & Rahe,
1967), and investigator‐based life stress interviews (e.g., Brown & Harris, 1978; Hammen et al., 1987). The advantages
and disadvantages of these approaches have been extensively reviewed elsewhere (Cohen, Kessler, & Gordon, 1997;
Dohrenwend, 2006; Monroe, 2008). Therefore, we provide only a summary of the main issues here and in Table 1,
followed by a discussion of the newest methods for assessing lifetime stress exposure.
3.1 |Self‐report measures of perceived stress
Questionnaires assessing perceived life stress, such as the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen et al., 1983), are among the
most frequently used instruments in stress research because they are very inexpensive and easy to administer. These
questionnaires ask participants a number of different questions that assess perceived stress levels over a given period
of time, such as “Over the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not
overcome them?”, and the results can be automatically scored if the questionnaire is completed on a computer.
Because of their low cost and ease of use, these scales have been extensively validated against many different
health‐related outcomes, including physical and mental health complaints, brain structure and function, and biological
aging (Cohen et al., 1983; Epel et al., 2004; Gianaros et al., 2007).
TABLE 1 Comparison of existing instruments for assessing life stress
Instrument Advantages Disadvantages
Quick and easy to use
Only moderate correspondence with
actual stress exposure
Correlate strongly with personality
One main outcome variable
Very limited stress assessment timeframe
(e.g., past month)
Self‐Report Life Event
Inexpensive Suffer from intracategory variability problem
Quick and easy to use Only one to two outcome variables
Scalable Very limited stress assessment timeframe
(e.g., past month)
Extensively validated; considered the
gold standard of stress assessment
Extremely resource intensive
Require extensive training for interviewer(s)
Limited stress assessment timeframe
(e.g., past 1–2 years)
Thorough stress assessment with
numerous outcome variables
stress exposure ratings
Ability to examine stress exposure by
different life domains and stressor
Automated Lifetime Stress
Inexpensive Limited validation data to date
Current absence of independent stress
Quick and easy to use
Thorough stress assessment with
numerous outcome variables
Ability to examine stress exposure
by different life domains and
Assesses stress exposure across the
entire life course
SHIELDS AND SLAVICH 3of17
Ironically, the main purpose of these measures (i.e., to assess perceived stress) is also frequently described as one
of their main limitations (Monroe, 2008). The primary concern here is that if peoples' perceptions of stress are entirely
self‐generated, then these perceptions may lack objectivity or be only weakly related to the actual stressors that have
occurred in peoples' lives. Consistent with this critique is the finding that certain personality traits, such as neuroticism
and self‐efficacy, are strongly correlated with perceived stress levels (Ebstrup, Eplov, Pisinger, & Jørgensen, 2011),
meaning that these scores may reflect aspects of personality as much as stress levels. A second limitation of these
measures is that they assess stress over only a relatively short timeframe (e.g., preceding month), even though many
contemporary models of stress and health hypothesize that stressors occurring across the entire life course are rele-
vant for health (Graham, Christian, & Kiecolt‐Glaser, 2006; Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009; Malat, Jacquez, &
Slavich, in press; McEwen, 1998).
3.2 |Self‐report life event checklist measures
Researchers who aim to catalogue the specific life stressors that individuals have experienced, rather than their overall
perceived stress levels, have most often used self‐report life event checklist measures of stress (Brugha, Bebbington,
Tennant, & Hurry, 1985; Crandall, Preisler, & Aussprung, 1992; Gray et al., 2004; Holmes & Rahe, 1967), given that
these instruments are also inexpensive, are easy to administer, and can be automatically scored. Self‐report
measures of this type ask each participant if a variety of different life events have happened during a given timeframe
(e.g., within the preceding year). Given their ability to detect such life events, these instruments have been found to
predict a wide variety of health‐related outcomes, including mental health problems and psychiatric diagnoses,
immune system function, diagnosis of autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, and early mortality (Naldi et al.,
2005; Peng et al., 2012; Risch et al., 2009; Rosengren et al., 1993; Schlesinger & Yodfat, 1991).
As summarized in Table 1, however, self‐report checklist measures also have several limitations. First, similar to
perceived stress scales, self‐report checklist measures of stress typically assess life stress exposure over only a short
timeframe, such as during early childhood or over the previous week or year (cf. Gray et al., 2004). Second, although
individuals are arguably “experts”on the types of life events they have experienced, individuals differ greatly in how
they interpret life event questions. When asked if someone close to the participant has recently died, for example,
some participants may consider an estranged but once close high school friend as “someone close,”whereas other
participants may not consider anyone except an immediate family member as “close.”This issue, which has been called
the intracategory variability problem (Dohrenwend, 2006), can cause substantial measurement error and lead to poor
concurrent validity of these instruments with more probing, investigator‐based measures of life stress exposure
3.3 |Investigator‐based life stress interviews
To address these limitations, some researchers have utilized a third method for assessing life stress—namely, investi-
gator‐based life stress interviews, such as the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule (LEDS; Brown & Harris, 1978) and
UCLA Life Stress Interview (Hammen et al., 1987). These systems employ a life stress interviewer, who is trained to
focus on the unique biographical details of the respondent and the objective characteristics of each life stressor that is
reported. In addition, these systems typically employ an independent team of life stress raters, who are trained in the
expert assessment of stress and who consult elaborate rating manuals when categorizing different life stressors and
judging their “objective severity.”
Because of these features, investigator‐based life stress interviewing systems are presently heralded as the “gold
standard”method for assessing stress exposure (Monroe & Slavich, 2016; Monroe, Slavich, & Georgiades, 2014).
Nevertheless, these systems also have some limitations that are not frequently discussed. First, they require highly
trained interviewers and raters, who must follow relatively complicated rules for obtaining and rating life stressor
information. Investigator‐based systems are thus very costly in terms of both money and time. Administering the
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LEDS, for example, can take up to 6 hr per participant (i.e., 2 hr to complete the interview, 1 hr to create the summary
report, 2 hr to rate the case, and 1 hr to enter and cross‐check the data), meaning that these systems are used only by
the few investigators worldwide who have the time and resources that are needed to employ such an elaborate
instrument. Second, although these systems yield very‐high‐resolution stress data, the timeframe covered is
extremely short (i.e., 1–2 years maximum). Therefore, the life stressors captured may be relevant for understanding
the development of some specific health outcomes, such as onset of a major depressive episode, but these data
are generally not useful for predicting the development of disease states that evolve more slowly over the life course,
such as the metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.
3.4 |Automated systems for assessing lifetime stress exposure
Most recently, the limitations associated with each of the methods described above have provided the impetus for
developing new methods for assessing life stress exposure that combine the depth and sophistication of a life stress
interview with the simplicity of a self‐report instrument. These automated life stress interviews are internet‐or com-
puter‐based instruments that utilize branching logic to prompt the same types of follow‐up questions that an expert
life stress interviewer would typically ask in order to ascertain exactly what happened to the respondent (e.g., When
did the stressor occur? How many times did you experience that stressor? How long did the stressor last? How much
did the stressor interfere with your goals, plans, or aspirations for the future?). Similar to investigator‐based systems,
therefore, these automated systems provide information that is critical for fully characterizing an individual's lifetime
stress exposure, but they do so in a much more cost‐effective and scalable manner. Likewise, these systems have the
benefit of being easy to administer and score, just like self‐report checklist measures of life stress, but they yield
information that is much more nuanced and informative than what self‐report checklists can produce.
To date, the only automated system that easily assesses stress exposure occurring across the entire life course is
the Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN). The current version of the STRAIN enquires about 55 different
stressors, including 26 acute life events and 29 chronic difficulties, that are known to impact health (see http://
www.strainsetup.com). These stressors cover all of the major life domains that are important for functioning, including
health, intimate relationships, friendships, education, work, finances, housing, living conditions, and crime. They
also cover several core social–psychological characteristics that may have differential effects on lifespan health—
specifically, interpersonal loss, physical danger, humiliation, entrapment, and role change or disruption. The STRAIN
is available in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Swiss (High) German, and Brazilian Portuguese, and investigators
can choose between two different interviewing platforms depending on whether they need to assess lifetime stress
exposure in adolescents (i.e., Adolescent STRAIN) or adults (i.e., Adult STRAIN).
One important feature of the STRAIN is its ability to predict not just self‐reported health outcomes that could be
influenced by reporting biases, such as self‐reported anxietyor depressive symptoms, but a wide varietyof psychological,
biological, and clinical outcomes. To date, these outcomes include memory (Goldfarb, Shields, Daw, Slavich, & Phelps,
2017), diurnal cortisol levels (Cuneo et al., in press), biological reactivity to acute stress (Lam, Shields, Trainor, Slavich, &
Yonelinas, 2017), metabolic function (Kurtzman et al., 2012), cancer‐related depression and fatigue (Bower, Crosswell,
& Slavich, 2014; Dooley, Slavich, Moreno, & Bower, 2017), physical and mental health problems (Shields, Moons, &
Slavich, 2017; Toussaint, Shields, Dorn, & Slavich, 2016), and likelihood of being diagnosed with a stress‐related illness
or autoimmune disorder (Slavich & Shields, in press; see also Slavich & Toussaint, 2014). Moreover, when compared to
other stress assessment instruments that are commonly used, such as self‐report measures of perceivedstress and stress-
ful life events, the STRAIN has emerged as a stronger predictor of respondent health (Slavich & Shields, in press).
As these technologies continue to improve and investigators come to appreciate the power of automated
interviewing platforms, we believe that use of simple paper‐and‐pencil self‐report measures of life stress and more
time‐consuming investigator‐based systems will give way to sophisticated online interviewing platforms like the
STRAIN, which enable investigators to acquire lifetime stress exposure information in a more cost‐efficient, reliable,
and scalable manner. Ultimately, these platforms are not a substitute for intensive investigator‐based systems like
SHIELDS AND SLAVICH 5of17
the LEDS, but they do cover the entire life course, which is something that even the prevailing gold standard systems
cannot accomplish. Looking forward, then, the adoption of such systems will be important for conducting empirical
tests of existing theoretical models that aim to explain how stressors occurring across the entire life course
accumulate to impact human health and well‐being.
4|CHARACTERIZING STRESS REACTIVITY IN THE LABORATORY
The foregoing review summarizes methods that have been employed for assessing life stress exposure as a means of
better understanding who is at risk for poor health. It is well known, however, that stress does not impact everyone
equally (Boyce & Ellis, 2005; Monroe et al., 2014; Slavich & Cole, 2013), which means that it is also important to
characterize individual differences in stress reactivity that could explain why some individuals become ill following
stress while others do not. To accomplish this, investigators have utilized different methods for inducing acute stress
in the laboratory, where environmental conditions can be carefully controlled and psychological and biological
outcomes can be closely measured. The characteristics of the three most commonly used methods for inducing stress
in the laboratory (Shields, Sazma, McCullough, & Yonelinas, 2017) are summarized in Table 2.
4.1 |Trier Social Stress Test
The gold standard task for inducing acute stress in the laboratory is the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which was
developed in the early 1990s (Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993). In the stress portion of this task, a participant
is taken to a laboratory room and told that he or she will give an upcoming speech in front of a panel of evaluators and
a video camera. He or she is then given a brief period of time (usually 5–10 min) to prepare a speech on his or her
qualifications for an important job (e.g., administrative assistant at his or her school). The participant is further told that
the evaluators are trained in monitoring nonverbal behavior and that a video analysis of their speech will be conducted
after the session. In reality, the evaluators are research assistants who are trained to say only scripted lines and give no
verbal or nonverbal signs of approval.
After the brief preparation phase, the participant is brought into the testing room for the speech task. The speech
task lasts 5 min, and if a participant stops talking prior to the end of the 5 min, the evaluators prompt the participant to
continue. After this task is finished, participants are given a difficult mental arithmetic task in front of the evaluators. In
the arithmetic task, participants are told to verbally subtract 13 from 1,022 as quickly and accurately as possible. The
evaluators are further instructed to tell the participant to restart at 1,022 every time he or she makes a mistake. After
5 min, the arithmetic task is finished and the participant is brought back to the preparation room.
This version of the TSST has been used in numerous studies and produces a relatively reliable and robust psycho-
logical and biological response that varies in magnitude across people (Allen, Kennedy, Cryan, Dinan, & Clarke, 2014;
Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004; Kirschbaum et al., 1993; Shields, Sazma, et al., 2017). In addition, a group version of the
TSST has also been developed (von Dawans, Kirschbaum, & Heinrichs, 2011). The reliably strong effect that the TSST
has on markers of stress reactivity is arguably its biggest advantage. Its biggest limitation, in contrast, involves the fact
that the TSST is very resource intensive. For example, it requires three trained evaluators and an experimenter to be
present for every participant, which means either that data collection proceeds slowly or that several people in the
laboratory must be devoted to running multiple TSST sessions every day or week.
TABLE 2 Comparison of existing laboratory‐based psychosocial stress tasks
Construct validity Ease of use Ecological validity
Trier Social Stress Test High Low High
Cold pressor test High High Low
Socially evaluated cold pressor test High Moderate Moderate
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4.2 |Cold pressor test
Another very common acute stress manipulation is the cold pressor test (CPT), which has been used in laboratory
settings for nearly 100 years (Hines & Brown, 1932). However, only recently has it gained traction as a way to induce
acute stress (e.g., Cahill, Gorski, & Le, 2003; Felmingham, Tran, Fong, & Bryant, 2012; Gluck, Geliebter, Hung, & Yahav,
2004). In this task, a participant is told to submerse his or her nondominant hand up to the wrist joint in either nearly
freezing water (usually 0–3 °C) for the stress condition or in lukewarm water for the control condition, both for up to
1–3 min. Afterward, the participant is instructed to withdraw his or her arm from the water and is then given a towel
to dry off.
The CPT has been validated in numerous stress studies and is the task of choice in certain areas of stress research,
such as examining post‐encoding stress effects on memory (Shields, Sazma, et al., 2017). The CPT thus has the advan-
tage of being relatively quick, well validated, and easy on resources (e.g., it requires only one experimenter, a bucket of
cold or lukewarm water, and less than 5 min to complete). However, the CPT induces a weaker cortisol response than
theTSST (Shields, Sazma, et al., 2017), and this reduced stress response is a limitation compared to other tasks like the
TSST. Another limitation of the CPT is that it does not include a socioevaluative component, which has been found to
be an important feature of laboratory stressors that reliably induce strong cortisol and inflammatory reactivity
(Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004; Slavich, Way, Eisenberger, & Taylor, 2010).
4.3 |Socially evaluated CPT
To address these limitations of the CPT, some researchers have developed hybrid stressor tasks that incorporate
elements of both the TSST and CPT. One such task, the socially evaluated cold pressor test, incorporates a stern
evaluator and video camera (similar to theTSST), and thus produces a larger biological stress response than the classic
CPT (Schwabe, Haddad, & Schachinger, 2008). Another task called the Maastricht Acute Stress Test requires
participants to alternate between immersing their hand in ice water and performing a TSST‐like arithmetic task while
they are being watched by an evaluator and filmed by a video camera (Smeets et al., 2012). This task thus evokes a
greater stress response than the CPT and one that is on par with the TSST. Considered together, these hybrid tasks
are slightly more resource intensive than the CPT, but they have the advantage of being able to induce a greater stress
response, making them worth the additional resources. In terms of limitations, hybrid stressors are regarded as less
ecologically valid than the TSST because they combine physical and social challenges that are not encountered in
everyday life (e.g., immersing your hand in ice water while being socially evaluated).
5|BIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS LINKING LIFETIME STRESS EXPOSURE
Together, methods like those described above for assessing life stress exposure and reactivity have yielded a
tremendous amount of data on biological processes linking stress and health. These pathways have been described
in great detail elsewhere (e.g., Graham et al., 2006; Irwin & Cole, 2011; Lupien et al., 2009; McEwen, 1998; G. Miller,
Chen, & Cole, 2009; Slavich & Cole, 2013; Slavich & Irwin, 2014). In this section, therefore, we summarize only the
most important details presently known about how stress gets represented by the brain and how the brain in turn
regulates peripheral physiologic and immune system processes that affect health.
5.1 |Neural and peripheral mechanisms of the stress response
In response to a stressor, the brain is thought to initiate a complex cascade of events that culminate in what is generally
referred to as the biological stress response. As described below, at least four major systems are often involved: the
hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis, sympathetic–adrenal–medullary
SHIELDS AND SLAVICH 7of17
(SAM) axis, and immune system (Allen et al., 2014; Lennartsson, Kushnir, Bergquist, Billig, & Jonsdottir, 2012;
Segerstrom & Miller, 2004).
The HPA axis regulates secretion of hormones, such as the glucocorticoid cortisol (Dedovic, Duchesne,
Andrews, Engert, & Pruessner, 2009; Sapolsky, Rivier, Yamamoto, Plotsky, & Vale, 1987; Sapolsky, Romero, &
Munck, 2000). Under stress, activity within parts of the brain that are involved in processing social–environmental
experiences, such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala, signal to the hypothalamus (Dedovic et al.,
2009), and activity in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus in turn results in the secretion of a
corticotropin‐releasing hormone (Lovallo & Thomas, 2000; Sawchenko, Li, & Ericsson, 2000). The corticotropin‐
releasing hormone then stimulates the pituitary to release an adrenocorticotropic hormone (Lovallo & Thomas,
2000; Sawchenko et al., 2000). Once released, the adrenocorticotropic hormone enters the bloodstream and travels
to the adrenal glands, where it stimulates the adrenals to produce and release cortisol into the bloodstream
(Sapolsky et al., 2000).
Activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis is similar to that of the HPA axis in that it starts with the
hypothalamus, which secretes a gonadotropin‐releasing hormone (Millar et al., 2004). The gonadotropin‐releasing
hormone then triggers the pituitary gland to produce a luteinizing hormone and follicle‐stimulating hormone (Meethal
& Atwood, 2005; Millar et al., 2004). These hormones then act on the gonads to upregulate production of sex
hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, which are released into the bloodstream (Meethal & Atwood, 2005).
Activation of the SAM axis, in turn, begins with neural activity in the locus coeruleus and other regions of the
brainstem stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which innervates the adrenal medulla (Allen et al., 2014;
Sabban & Kvetňanský, 2001). The adrenal medulla then upregulates production of norepinephrine and epinephrine,
and releases them into the bloodstream.
Finally, the immune system is believed to be activated during stress largely by the SAM axis. An end product of
SAM axis activation, norepinephrine, circulates in the body and acts on immune cell receptors to upregulate the
activity of transcription factor nuclear factor‐κB (Bierhaus et al., 2003). Through a complex series of intracellular
events, nuclear factor‐κB activation in turn promotes the synthesis of proinflammatory cytokines, which are then
released into circulation. This is not the only way that stress influences the immune system (Silverman & Sternberg,
2012), since cortisol is also a strong regulator of inflammatory activity (Slavich & Irwin, 2014), but it represents a
primary pathway through which stress affects immunity and health.
The systems described above are not the only ones affected by stress. For example, stress also influences, and
may be modulated by, the opioid system, and may impair some cognitive functions through these effects (Laredo
et al., 2015; Slavich, Tartter, Brennan, & Hammen, 2014). Glucocorticoids, sex hormones, sympathetic nervous system
activation, and the immune system all have well‐documented implications for health, though, which is why we focused
on them here.
5.2 |Allostatic load
These stress‐responsive systems are intended to promote biological stability during environmental change. For
example, upregulation of norepinephrine and cortisol primes the body to “fight or flee”from a stressor (McEwen &
Sapolsky, 1995), while activation of the immune system facilitates healing should an injury or infection occur as a
result of the stressor or associated threat (Dhabhar, 2002). This process of “stability through change”has been labeled
allostasis (McEwen, 1998; Sterling & Eyer, 1988), and it is a well‐established mechanism through which the body deals
with an ever‐changing, and sometimes threatening, environment.
Over time and with repeated activation, however, the functionality of these stress‐responsive systems can
change and produce biological “wear and tear,”or allostatic load, that affects health (Juster et al., 2010; McEwen,
1998, 2005, 2007). For example, greater life stress exposure has been associated with reduced HPA axis responses
to acute stress (Carpenter et al., 2007), chronic low‐grade inflammatory activity (Slavich & Irwin, 2014), and an
inability for cortisol to properly regulate inflammatory activity (Cohen et al., 2012; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012).
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Moreover, these changes have been directly implicated in the development of disease (Cohen et al., 2012; Silverman
& Sternberg, 2012; Slavich & Irwin, 2014).
One interpretation of the above data suggests that these physiological changes are adaptive for dealing with a
chronically unstable environment. This interpretation is similar to the match–mismatch hypothesis, which argues that
stress leads to negative health outcomes when an early environment is either more or less stressful than a later
environment (Nederhof & Schmidt, 2012; Santarelli et al., 2014; Zalosnik, Pollano, Trujillo, Suárez, & Durando,
2014). Consistent with this formulation, both the brain and the immune system calibrate to the environment and
are predictive systems that attempt to anticipate future challenges and threats (Chiel & Beer, 1997; Dhabhar,
2002; Schultz, Dayan, & Montague, 1997). As a result of these dynamics, the immune system can respond to bodily
damage or infection relatively quickly, and sometimes before actual physical or biological damage has occurred
5.3 |Consequences of lifetime stress exposure and allostatic load
Adapting to conditions of environmental uncertainty is biologically beneficial but also has physiological costs that can
degrade health over the long term. In particular, by adapting to repeated elevations of glucocorticoids, certain cells in
the body, such as immune system cells, become insensitive to glucocorticoids, which has been called glucocorticoid
resistance (Cohen et al., 2012; A. H. Miller, Pariante, & Pearce, 1999; Pariante, 1999; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012;
Wang, Wu, & Miller, 2004). Because glucocorticoids are primary regulators of inflammatory activity (Auphan,
DiDonato, Rosette, Helmberg, & Karin, 1995; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012), glucocorticoid resistance disinhibits
the release of inflammatory proteins from immune cells, leading to chronic, low‐grade inflammation (Cohen et al.,
2012; A. H. Miller et al., 1999; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012; Slavich & Irwin, 2014). This chronic, low‐grade inflamma-
tory state is in turn believed to promote the development or exacerbation of multiple diseases, including autoimmune
disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis), Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease, and depression (Akiyama et al.,
2000; Couzin‐Frankel, 2010; Feigenson, Kusnecov, & Silverstein, 2014; Libby, 2002; Ridker, Cushman, Stampfer,
Tracy, & Hennekens, 1997; Silverman & Sternberg, 2012; Slavich & Irwin, 2014).
5.4 |Biological embedding of life stress
The above consequences of greater lifetime stress exposure and allostatic load are due in part to the fact that lifetime
stress exposure can become embedded on a neural and genomic level. For example, stress can induce lasting changes
in catecholaminergic and cholinergic function in the brain (Sabban & Kvetňanský, 2001; Soreq, Kaufer, Friedman, &
Seidman, 1998). Stress occurring over the lifespan can also promote lasting structural changes in the brain, especially
in regions such as the prefrontal cortex (Dias‐Ferreira et al., 2009; Hinwood, Morandini, Day, & Walker, 2012;
Hinwood et al., 2013) and hippocampus (McEwen, 2007; McEwen & Sapolsky, 1995; Zalosnik et al., 2014), which
underpin cognitive processes that are important for everyday life. Together, these stress‐related neural changes
can alter the functioning of the physiologic stress systems described above, as well as how subsequent life stressors
are perceived and managed.
Lifetime stress exposure can also have sustained effects on health by becoming embedded at the level of the
human genome (Slavich & Cole, 2013). For example, stress is known to upregulate the expression of genes that code
for proinflammatory cytokines and downregulate the expression of genes that code for antiviral cytokines. These
alterations can promote a state of persistently elevated inflammation coupled with an inability to properly fight viral
infections, thus increasing a person's risk for both inflammation‐related disease and viral infection (Slavich & Cole,
2013). Chronic or repeated stress exposure can also lead to persistent alterations in glucocorticoid receptor gene
expression in the brain, including reductions in the expression of hippocampal and cerebellar glucocorticoid receptors
(Kitraki, Karandrea, & Kittas, 1999; Liu et al., 1997). These changes reduce the ability of glucocorticoids to initiate the
SHIELDS AND SLAVICH 9of17
negative feedback loop in the hippocampus that reduces the production of glucocorticoids, ultimately leading to a less
controlled glucocorticoid response to stress that can promote inflammation and cause disease (Liu et al., 1997).
6|PRESSING PROBLEMS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
Despite the abundance of studies that have been conducted on stress and health, and the continued importance and
public health relevance of this work, a majority of stress studies still employ assessment methods that have critical
limitations. As a result, many important questions remain unanswered. We highlight some of these issues below,
focusing first on existing measurement challenges and then on lingering scientific questions.
6.1 |Measurement issues
One of the greatest ongoing challenges in stress measurement involves the lack of tools for assessing life stress
exposure that are inexpensive, easily scalable, and valid. Most instruments that presently exist for assessing life stress
have inherent trade‐offs between cost and validity. For example, although paper‐and‐pencil measures are cheap, their
validity is limited; in contrast, investigator‐based interviewing systems are well validated, but very expensive. Online
systems like the STRAIN have made substantial progress in combining the sophistication of investigator‐based
interviewing systems with the ease of self‐report instruments, but more methodological advancement is needed along
these lines to improve how researchers assess stress.
Second, stress can occur on several different timescales, from moment‐to‐moment stress, to daily, to weekly, to
lifetime stress exposure. However, no measurement system presently exists for assessing stress across multiple time-
scales. As a result, studies frequently assess stress at one timescale (e.g., daily hassles or major life events) but do not
combine this information with other timescales, making an individual's stress profile arguably incomplete. This need
could be addressed by developing tools that assess stress reactivity or exposure on an ongoing basis, but the challenge
here is to create instruments that individuals are willing to use and find noninvasive.
Third, assessing both life stress exposure and stress reactivity is important for characterizing resilience to stress
and for identifying persons at highest risk for poor health. However, current research and measurement strategies
do not typically take both aspects of the stress process into account. Incorporating this measurement goal into future
studies would be an important development methodologically, but this advancement could also yield important new
discoveries on stress, coping, and resilience.
Finally, there is a need to further validate existing computer‐based instruments for assessing life stress and to
develop new applications for helping individuals manage stress. With respect to the first goal, it is possible that
automated systems will eclipse paper‐and‐pencil‐based systems for assessing stress, but to be useful, these systems
need to be validated across all major levels of analysis (e.g., psychological, neural, physiologic, molecular, and genomic)
and across different population groups and cultures. With respect to the second goal, automated systems are
presently being developed to help individuals cope with stress—such as the acceptance and commitment‐based
smartphone app (Ly, Asplund, & Andersson, 2014) and BeWell smartphone app (Lane et al., 2014)—but development
of these tools is still in its infancy, and additional research is needed to examine which tools provide the greatest
6.2 |Scientific issues
Partly because of these ongoing measurement issues, stress research has yet to address many important scientific
questions that are relevant for public health. For example, why does major life stress precipitate illness in some
individuals and not others? Moreover, what factors determine the type of stress‐related disorder that develops?
These questions have been answered in part (e.g., Elliott, Ezra‐Nevo, Regev, Neufeld‐Cohen, & Chen, 2010; Santarelli
et al., 2014; Shansky, 2015; Slavich & Irwin, 2014). Unfortunately, however, this work has not yet produced
10 of 17 SHIELDS AND SLAVICH
translational models that would enable healthcare providers to make predictions in the clinic, which is what would be
most useful for preventing and mitigating stress‐related disease burden.
In addition, there is a pressing need to better understand mechanisms that underlie specific mental and
physical disorders, as well as the co‐occurrence of such disorders. Some biological processes, such as inflammation,
that may underlie the development of certain diseases and also represent a common mechanism that increases
risk for poor health in general have recently been described (Couzin‐Frankel, 2010; Slavich, 2015). However,
inflammation itself does not sufficiently explain why individuals develop certain inflammation‐related health problems
(e.g., cardiovascular disease) versus others (e.g., cancer).
Several other scientific issues are also ripe for investigation. For example, it has been proposed that humans have
sensitive periods during which time stress is particularly impactful (Andersen & Teicher, 2008). However, it remains
unclear when those sensitive periods are and what exact processes would be responsible for enhancing the effects
of stress on health. Second, resilience to stress has been the subject of a great deal of research (Baratta, Rozeske,
& Maier, 2013; Charney, 2004; Dooley et al., 2017; Elliott et al., 2010; Shansky, 2015; van der Werff, van den Berg,
Pannekoek, Elzinga, & van der Wee, 2013), but a complete understanding of the psychological and biological factors
that confer resilience to stress is still unavailable. Finally, psychological and psychopharmacological interventions have
been heralded as having great potential for reducing stress and enhancing human health, but we still do not have
interventions that are cost‐effective and scalable, and that have been shown to reduce the negative effects that stress
has on health‐relevant psychological, biological, and clinical outcomes.
7|SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
In summary, lifetime stress exposure refers to the total sum of the acute stressful life events and chronic difficulties
that a person has experienced over his or her lifespan. Theorists have proposed that lifetime stress exposure increases
risk for a variety of mental and physical health problems, including depression, cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's dis-
ease, and autoimmune disorders (Juster et al., 2010; McEwen, 1998; G. E. Miller et al., 2011; Silverman & Sternberg,
2012; Slavich & Cole, 2013; Slavich & Irwin, 2014; Slavich, O'Donovan, Epel, & Kemeny, 2010; Slavich, 2015). To date,
however, only a few studies have actually measured lifetime stress exposure. Indeed, the rest of the vast literature on
stress and health has assessed stress exposure using self‐report checklist measures or investigator‐based interviewing
methods that assess stress over only short periods of time (e.g., past week or year), which is not sufficient for testing
existing theories of lifetime stress exposure and health.
Looking forward, researchers have developed new online systems for assessing stress exposure that combine the
thoroughness of a life stress interview with the ease of administration of a self‐report checklist measure. The only
online system that presently assesses lifetime stress exposure, though, is the STRAIN, and although this system
performs well, it needs to be tested in additional populations and in relation to other psychological, biological, and
clinical outcomes. These methodological advancements will ultimately combine with innovative new tools for reducing
stress to have a substantial impact on human health. However, much more research is needed to develop these
instruments to address the enormous disease burden that is caused by stress‐related health problems worldwide.
Preparation of this article was supported by a Society in Science–Branco Weiss Fellowship, NARSAD Young
Investigator Grant #23958 from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and National Institutes of Health grant
K08 MH103443 to George M. Slavich.
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Grant S. Shields, M.A., is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.
His research is broadly aimed at understanding the effects of stress on cognition and health, with an interest in
elucidating mechanisms underlying these effects. His work on these topics has been published in Psychological
Bulletin,Perspectives on Psychological Science,Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,Psychoneuroendocrinology,
and Stress, among others.
George M. Slavich, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the conceptualization, assessment, and management of life stress,
and in psychological and biological mechanisms linking stress with disease. He developed the first online system
for assessing lifetime stress exposure; formulated the first fully integrated, multilevel theory of depression; eluci-
dated the neural mechanisms underlying inflammatory reactivity to social stress; and is helping pioneer a new field
of research, called human social genomics. In addition to these basic research efforts, he is deeply devoted to
teaching and mentoring and to developing groups that promote student development. He has received 17 awards
for these contributions since 2009, the most recent of which include the American Psychosomatic Society
Herbert Weiner Early Career Award, Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research Neal E. Miller New Investigator
Award, and Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology Susan Nolen‐Hoeksema Early Career Research Award.
Dr. Slavich completed undergraduate and graduate coursework in psychology and communication at Stanford
University and received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Oregon. After graduate school,
he was a clinical psychology intern at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and a clinical fellow in the
Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He subsequently completed 3 years of postdoctoral training
in health psychology and psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, San Francisco, and University of
California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is presently an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Bio-
behavioral Sciences at UCLA, a Research Scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Associate
Director of the National Institute on Aging‐supported Stress Measurement Network, and Director of the UCLA
Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research (http://www.uclastresslab.org).
How to cite this article: Shields GS, Slavich GM. Lifetime stress exposure and health: A review of contempo-
rary assessment methods and biological mechanisms. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017;11:e12335. https://
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