A study done on rats suggest that two-day breaks might not be the ideal solution to stress that we think it is. Published in PLoS ONE, research conducted by the University School of Medicine in Chicago found that escaping stress has more of a negative effect on your anxiety than working through the pressure.

Exposing Rats to Stress

The experiment began with a question: how do changes to stressful scenarios affect an animal's response to stress? Researchers exposed rats to a consistent stressor by placing them in a tube where they were unable to get out or turn around. They found that after a prolonged period of time, the rats began to undergo a phenomenon known as habituation—that is, cognitive adjustments to external obstacles. They acclimated to the stress of the restraint and stopped struggling in the tube.

To assess what would happen when this stressor was interrupted, one group of rats was granted a “science-induced weekend" after every five days of experiencing the tube. The other group continued to be exposed to the stressor on a daily basis. Researchers found that the group that was given a two-day break showed more signs of anxiety. They had higher levels of stress hormones and showed significantly more signs of struggling than their control group counterparts. Their habituation, researchers concluded, had been reduced.

Using a Maze to Measure Anxiety

To further examine how these breaks influenced anxiety, researchers conducted another experiment using a plus-shaped maze. High off the ground, part of the maze had high walls that created dark spaces where rats would feel safe. The other part had open platforms, a risky environment for rats. Three groups of rats were exposed to the maze: rats that never experienced the tube stressor, rats that were placed in the tube daily, and rats that were placed in the tube but got two days off. Rats that consistently experienced the stressor showed more signs of anxiety in the maze than the rats that never had the tube. The rats with the “science-induced break," however, exhibited the most anxiety of all three groups.

Understanding Stress

While the study shines a negative light on a typical weekend break, researchers note that their findings are not necessarily a basis to disrupt days of rest, but instead, they provide more insight for stress management. “These specific results make sense because getting used to stress is partly due to the predictability of the experience," notes Seema Bhatnagar, neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “If suddenly the stress stops and then restarts, it becomes less predictable and the habituation process in a sense has to restart."


Date of original publication:
Updated on: January 12, 2017


Wei Zhang, Andrea Hetzel, Bijal Shah, Derek Atchley, Shannon R. Blume, Mallika A. Padival, J. Amiel Rosenkranz. Greater Physiological and Behavioral Effects of Interrupted Stress Pattern Compared to Daily Restraint Stress in Rats. PLoS ONE, July 2014. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102247