Hot housed Chinese schoolkids are getting ill from the stress

Chinese schoolchildrenA third of Chinese children experience high levels of school-related stress, and these kids are about five times more likely to have the physical symptoms of stress – that is, headache or abdominal pain – then their less frazzled peers.

Thanks to the combination of China’s recent economic growth – with the increased opportunities for upward mobility – and the vast numbers of people competing for each university place and job, Chinese children are under pressure to do well right from the start of primary school.

A cross-sectional study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood has now shown the negative effects this relentless pressure can have on children’s health.

The study was carried out on more than 2,00 children aged 9-12 years in nine schools in urban and rural areas of Zhejiang, a relatively wealthy coastal province in the east of China.

Nearly a fifth said they rarely enjoyed school, with boys less likely to enjoy school than girls. A total of 81% said they worried “a lot” about exams, and 78% felt under pressure to perform well at school “all the time.”

In particular, the punitive nature of school in China comes across in this study: 44% of children were always afraid of being punished by their teachers. Furthermore, 71% said they were physically punished by their parents at least sometimes. No wonder these kids were so worried about doing well.

When it came to the psychosomatic symptoms of stress, 67% of boys and 66% of girls reported headache at least once a week, whereas 60% of boys and 78% of girls has stomach ache that often.

As a comparison, a study of school stress in Swedish 10-13 year olds reported that 21% of boys and 30% of girls experienced headache and 17% of boys and 28% of girls experienced abdominal pain at least once per week.

Children who were the most stressed on all the measures looked at were 5.6 times more likely to experience headache and 4.9 times more likely to report abdominal pain than kids who were the least stressed. Being bullied was the individual stressor that was most strongly associated with psychosomatic symptoms.

The authors believe that their findings “reflect the high value placed on education in Chinese society, urban and rural, and the widespread belief in the possibility for upward social mobility through education.”

Piling so much stress onto such young children could be storing up problems for the future. Studies have shown that children who have high levels of anxiety and depression are likely to have psychological problems into adolescence and adulthood.

According to the authors, “Much of the stress in Chinese schools is unnecessary and has simply become incorporated into the system.” They recommend reducing the frequency of exams and the sheer volume of homework to make life a little less intense for kids.

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Hesketh T et al. (2010) Stress and psychosomatic symptoms in Chinese school children: cross-sectional survey. Archives of Disease in Childhood 95 (2): 136-140. DOI: 10.1136/adc.2009.171660

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A stressful job doubles the likelihood of stroke – but only for men

job-stressA study published in Annals of Internal Medicine has found that men with a stressful job are twice as likely to have a stroke than are men with less demanding jobs.  Interestingly, there was no correlation between job stress and incidence of stroke among women.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, for example when a clot blocks one of the blood vessels supplying the brain.  Stroke can cause permanent neurological damage and even death, and has been linked to stress for quite some time.

Tsutsumi et al. interviewed 3,190 Japanese men and 3,363 Japanese women from a variety of job backgrounds, including managers, professionals, technicians, clerks, salespeople, farmers, craftsmen and labourers.  The level of occupational stress experienced by these workers was evaluated and participants were placed into four stress categories: high strain (high job demand + low job control); active job (high job demand + high job control); low strain (low job demand + high job control); and passive job (low job demand + low job control).

Over the next 11 years, 91 men and 56 women experienced a stroke.  Men under high job strain – i.e. those with lots of demands on their shoulders and with little control of their workload – were twice as likely to experience a stroke than were men under low strain.  In women, however, the incidence of stroke was the similar among those with a stressful job and those under less strain.

Among men, the association between job stress and stroke lessened somewhat when other risk factors for stroke, such as obesity and high blood pressure, were taken into account, suggesting that pre-existing chronic diseases and an unhealthy lifestyle up the chance of stroke in stressed out employees.

The authors of the study suggest that that the difference between the sexes could be because women approach stressful jobs differently to men or because more women than men work part-time.
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Akizumi Tsutsumi, Kazunori Kayaba, Kazuomi Kario, and Shizukiyo Ishikawa (2009) Prospective Study on Occupational Stress and Risk of Stroke Arch Intern Med 169 (1): 56-61

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