Hello and welcome to the Big Five podcast from Northumbria psychology department. My name is Dr. Genavee Brown and I'll be your guide into the minds of psychology students, alumni and researchers at Northumbria University. I'm a lecturer and social psychology researcher in the psychology department. Each week on this podcast, I'll speak to a guest who's either student, alumni or researcher in the Northumbria psychology department. By asking them five big questions, we'll learn about their time studying psychology, and hopefully learn some big facts about human behavior and experience. Today I have the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Mark Weatherall. Hello, Mark. Hi Genavee. Mark is a professor of psycho biology at Northumbria University. And as a registered health psychologist, he heads the health and well being research cluster. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of stress and the psychological and behavioral factors that lead to stress. In other words, how stress enters the body and why it has different effects on different people. Well, this is a very interesting research topic. I'm very curious to hear about the work you've done. And I'm curious, why did you get interested in stress in the first place? And what are some of the theories that underlie this research?
Right? So I mean, I think the first thing to know is, I haven't got any the answers, I study stress all the time. But as my family will tell you, I'm a bit of a stress head. So I'm much better at giving advice than actually taking it myself. How stress? Well, probably it started a bit more generally than that. My mum and dad were both scientists. My mom was a biochemist, my dad was a pharmacologist, who studied behavior and drugs. So there was a lot of science in the house. So I guess, you know, by nature and or nurture, I was always destined to do something like this maybe. So I think the first stress study I ran was maybe during my A Level Biology project, where I was interested in stress and performance. So I got a friend who was a professional golfer, and got him to compete against a teacher who was an amateur golfer, in a simple golfing competition, whilst they were being socially evaluated, I measured their kind of self reported stress, I measured their heart rate in a very crude way. And the results were quite interesting, because the younger golfer who was much better got far more stress than the teacher. So this kind of, I guess, this is my first exposure to understanding individual differences in stress, and realizing it's not necessarily the stressor, is how you respond to it. So the younger golfer, felt there was far more on the line, he was, you know, a great golfer, he had a point to prove. And that worked up his stress levels, whereas the teacher, obviously he had a position of authority as well, was much better equipped to kind of deal with this and less bothered by it. So this is very closely related to a, you know, an influential theory in stress psychology, looking at the kind of the transactional model of stress by Lazarus and Folkman, where they say that you look at stress in two ways. First of all, you appraise the event. So is it challenging? Is it harmful? If it's not, then you don't really bother you filter out. But if you do think it's going to be challenging or harmful in some way, then the next wave of appraisal is okay, what can you do about it? So in the case of the golf competition, the teacher maybe didn't really see the stressor as stressful anyway, or certainly not as stressful or challenging as the student, but he felt better equipped to deal with it. So the second wave of appraisal, he thought he had better coping resources. And that reduces stress. So I guess that was my first stress study. And I was kind of interested in, you know, why did different people get stressed about different things? Why does the same thing not stress, different people to the same degree, and, and pretty much this is what I've been doing, ever since. I think there was something else is quite influential. As a kid, I grew up in somewhere called Wiltshire. And a few miles away from where I live, there was a Medical Research Council research unit called the common cold unit. And it used to be on the TV quite a lot. And this is like a residential Research Unit where people used to come along, get infected with a cold. And the researchers used to, you know, study their performance study background factors that might influence how they got the cold, why they got the cold, you know, they used to do things like you know, measure how soggy their tissues were after blowing their nose so they could get viral load, you know, loads of stuff. And as a kid, it was often on the news, because it was, you know, an interesting thing. And I found that quite fascinating. But fast forward to my degree, some of the papers that were actually developed This research unit, I started studying in my health psychology option. And then I realized that they were actually looking at things like self reported stress, anxiety, depression, and those people that had higher levels of anxiety, distress, etc, were the ones that were most likely to go on and develop a cold. So this is the other element of stress, I'm interested in stress gets inside the body somehow, and causes all these physiological changes, including changes to ill health, vulnerability in our immune systems, etc. So I've kind of maybe bought those two things together. And pretty much ever since those are the things that I've been studying. During my degree, whenever I got the opportunity to study something vaguely biological, I would, and the individual differences bit has always been there. Why do people respond in different ways to the same stressor? Yeah, that's
very fascinating. And I think it's so interesting when people find kind of their calling from a young age. I think that's pretty rare. So it's great that you were able to do that. And to follow that path. What are some of the methodologies of these studies? So you talked about that health clinic where they had they gave people colds and measured their stress? But what kind of methodologies do you use? And can you talk about maybe some of the more biological ones that people don't think of when they think of psychology?
Sure. I mean, I guess, you know, I refer to myself as a psycho biologist. And that's because I'm interested in the psychological and the biological causes and consequences. But I also think about these things in terms of pathways inside the body. So how does this thing we can't see called stress somehow get inside the body. So we need to be looking at the biological pathways in particular, to see how they're activated in response to stressful situations. So if we think about, from a biological perspective, what changes when we're stressed, some of these things, you know, we're all aware of all the time, things like the cardiovascular system changes. So we get changes in heart rate and blood pressure, we can measure those other kind of markers of the sympathetic nervous system, you know, we sweat, more dilation of pupils, etc. All of these things are observable, and measurable to varying degrees, we tend to focus on things like heart rate and blood pressure, because they're more accessible. Other changes that we get are changes in the endocrine or hormone system. So we, we observed changes in hormone levels across time. And in particular, we're typically interested in a hormone that's often called the stress hormone called cortisol. So cortisol is a hormone that responds to stress increases at times of stress. And this is because cortisol is a, like an energy mobilizing hormone. So at times of challenge or stress, you release this hormone, because it does things like free up energy helps you kind of metabolize glucose, all of the things you need at times of challenge or stress. So the stress hormone cortisol goes up when we experienced a stressor. And we can also measure that conveniently for us, we can measure in saliva samples. So that makes things a little bit easier. And we're also interested in immune changes, as I said earlier, you know, stress gets inside the body and changes all these things, including making us more vulnerable to infectious illness. And this is because when things like cortisol are increasing, it's doing less of its kind of more longer term regulatory job, which is looking after the immune system, looking after the endocrine system. So when we get really stressed chronic levels of stress, these other systems get kind of knocked out of whack. So our immune system doesn't respond in the way it should. So in some studies, we might try and measure the immune system. There's lots of interesting studies where people look at vaccine responses, which is quite a topical one at the moment, there's been some recent work looking at how some of those factors identified earlier anxiety, depression, those people who are high in those factors are actually more vulnerable to COVID. And so you know, it quite relevant to what we're experiencing at the moment. There are things in your immune system that you can measure, some of them are quite difficult vaccine responses, you know, reply, require blood samples and stuff, but there are some things that you can measure in saliva. So for example, in my PhD, I measured a protein called immunoglobulin A, which you can measure in saliva. This is quite an interesting one, because immunoglobulin A or IGA is the kind of first line of defense against things like coughs and colds and sore throats, you know, the kinds of things are not going to kill us, but you know, they can be quite debilitating, and they can affect our everyday performance. These things also change in response to stress. So acute stress makes these things increase to give you a temporary kind of increase in protection against infectious illness, but over the long term, these things decline. So, so we measure cardiovascular, endocrine immune function, but something that I'm always at pains to remember But is the psychological factors, we are the best gauge of how we feel self report measures get kind of a bit of bad press. It's kind of, you know, psychology 101, to say, you know, we can't rely on self report measures, which is why a lot of people are really interested in the biological factors, or the biological factors have their own measurement disadvantages, and you really got to know what you're doing to make sure you can interpret them properly. But we should never underestimate asking someone, how stressed they are. And there are lots of different ways of doing this with kind of validated self report measures. So we try and get like a comprehensive overview of how people are responding in terms of their emotions behavior, psychologically, and in terms of their biology. Yeah,
I think that's a really good point about the self report measures. So if we go back to your first study with the golfers, I bet the teacher would have said, Oh, I don't feel that stressed. And that might have been just as good a measure of stress as maybe cortisol levels or something like that. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, I think that's super interesting. Also think, you know, with the biological measures, there are individual differences in those as well. So you have to kind of like take those things into account.
And that can be a bit of a problem, actually, yeah. So you know, heart rate and blood pressure increase when you're stressed. But they also increase when you're excited. So teasing out these things is really important, which is why I say, you know, if you measure these things, but you're not really measure them, measuring them properly, or interpreting them properly, you can miss attribute what's going on. So some of the work we do is about trying to understand when and why these things increase in relation to what else is going on. And so to do this, we kind of follow kind of two different approaches, really, so we've got all of these measurement approaches. But then when we want to measure stress, we've kind of got two options. We either point people into our labs and stress them out, or we measure stress in the real world. So we kind of do both of these things when we bring people into the lab. Unfortunately, ethics committees don't really like you doing really horrible things to people. So the kind of stresses that you you do in the lab, you know, relatively minor, but we get we cognitively challenged people, we make them do effortful tasks, all of the things that we know people don't really like. So getting them to think hard under pressure, whilst being socially evaluated. So when we bring people into the lab, what we're trying to do is understand those mechanisms that get activated when we're stressed, but trying to understand it in a more controlled environment. But the downside of a controlled environment is it often lacks what we call ecological validity. How representative is it, of what's going on in the real world. So when people are in the lab, we try and do is come up with stressful situations that we think mimic those kinds of situations that you might encounter in the real world. So we can get a handle on what would they be like in a real world situation. So we developed kind of stress paradigms that represent real world stress. So something we use quite a lot is called the multitasking framework, where we get people to sit in front of a computer, they have to do several challenging mental tasks simultaneously. This gets them frustrated, anxious, they feel time pressure. And then if we want to ramp up stress even more, we get someone looking over their shoulder telling them they're doing a really rubbish job, maybe put a video camera on them just so they feel overly evaluated. So those are the kinds of things that we do in the lab. And what we try and do is then translate those findings to real life situations. If we don't bring people into the lab, then we tend to study stress in real people in the real world. And this involves lots of different groups. What all of these groups would have in common is they are all experiencing either discrete periods of higher and lower stress, or they're experiencing chronic levels of stress. So to these ends, you know, we've looked at students during exam times and vacation time, so higher and lower stress, we might look at emergency workers, for example, on shift or not on shift, athletes in training, for competitive in training for competitions, etc. So those are kind of discrete periods of higher and lower stress. Or we might look at people who are by nature of their life or their job, or experiencing chronic levels of stress, such as those that provide care for another caregivers. care workers often experience high levels of stress, people experiencing different disease states that might increase their levels of stress, other kinds of blue light workers, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, so we try and use the techniques that we develop in the lab to try and understand their stress through observation techniques, but also sampling whatever we can, you know, so measuring their heart rate and blood pressure in a trial receive way, or getting them to supply saliva samples so we can measure the stress hormones. Sometimes we'll bring these techniques together. So we get a highly stressed group and bring them into the lab to see how they respond if they have to cope with even more stress, so we kind of try and bring all these different techniques together.
Yeah, that's fascinating. I'm wondering, since you use all these different techniques, what is one of the most interesting or surprising things that you've learned from this research about stress?
So I guess, surprising, maybe it is a happenstance finding, and it's something that's now been developed. So when we bring people into the lab, we you know, hook them up to a heart rate or blood pressure monitor, in order to establish a baseline before we start stressing them out. And we started to realize that people start getting stressed before you actually give them a stressor. So for example, if we're, if they're about to perform a whole set of cognitive tasks, we start giving them the instructions, etc, their heart rate and blood pressure start increasing, whilst we're telling them what's going to happen.
Now, in a lot of acute stress studies, this is actually a bit of a nuisance variable, because what you want is a nice, clear baseline period. So you can then observe stress reactivity, and stress recovery. But this kind of got me thinking that, well, this is a bit more like real life. You know, we we think about things that are forthcoming. Sometimes things happen without us expecting them. And so these kinds of observations in the lab have now developed into a whole research program about anticipation and recovery heart. So this is what we've been looking out for the last couple of years. And it actually, it relates to a question that I was pondering during my PhD and after. So you may have heard the analogy of stress where you're walking in the woods, you know, it's a lovely day, you're walking in the woods, and all of a sudden, the bear jumps out, and you mount this fight or flight response in order to get away from that bear. This is a useful, this is an adaptive response to help us survive, you can fight the bear, probably not, you'll probably run away from the bear. But you now have all this resource to enable you to do that. But for a long time, I was thinking, Well, what happens if the bear jumps out, looks at you, and the bear runs away? What happens when you mount this response? And then it's not needed anymore. So this kind of I started thinking about this in relation to our observations of anticipation. So what would happen if we got someone to anticipate an event, and then we stripped it away, and that didn't happen anymore? So we've been playing around with lots of different things where we try and manipulate a situation where people are expecting something stressful, demanding, challenging to happen, and we observe what happens in the build up to that. And then what happens if that event doesn't happen? Now, this is quite difficult to do. But with some colleagues, Michael Smith and Ollie crawl, we actually looked at this in skydivers. So this is a kind of a unique situation where I think the stat is something like 60% of skydiving are canceled because of bad weather. So I thought this is about as close as I can get to a bear running away from you. Can we set up a study where we are observing people who are expecting to skydive, and then the skydive doesn't happen? What happens to all this resource that we build up? So we, you know, Ali did her whole PhD on on this in skydivers and what happens when they don't jump? It was a really difficult set of studies to run, because lots of unexpected things happen. But yeah, you build up this resource in relation to this forthcoming, potentially life threatening event, jumping out of an aeroplane. And then if in the last minute, it doesn't happen, your stress responses remain elevated for quite a long time. And in fact, what we observed is in those people that didn't jump, their stress levels remained elevated for longer than those people that did jump. There's almost as if they build up this resource, and then they used it, and then they're back down to normal. So we monitored like stress levels across the day in those people that didn't jump. And it is partly because they're expecting maybe at a later date, maybe the following day, they might jump, but their levels of anticipation, and their levels of stress hormones and self reported stress remained elevated throughout the day. Right, those people that jumped, they got stressed, they jumped, they landed, they got back down to normal. So I think there's something you know, in relation to a whole host of other everyday situations where people get themselves really worked up about an event. And that event maybe isn't as bad as they thought it was going to be. You know, you do get some relief. But maybe if that event is still in the back of your mind, you're still As levels remain elevated for a long time, and going right back to how stress gets inside the body and causes problems for the immune system, if you're activating levels of stress hormones unnecessarily for a prolonged period of time, then this is going to cause long term consequences for your health and well being. And this is what we see in people who are chronically stressed, they're chronically stressed, they're chronically over anticipating worrying about what has happened, what might happen. And all of these have the same impact as the bear actually jumping out, you get stressed just by thinking about the bear, not just the bear. But if the bear jumps out, and you use that resource, that's good. You recover, get back down to normal, but most people's lives aren't like that. So I guess Yeah, that was unexpected. Ironically, given that we're looking at anticipation of expected events.
Yeah, no, that's really interesting. It makes me wonder, you know, a lot of people said that they plan to, to help them deal with their stress, like they plan their workout or whatever. But I wonder if like just thinking about, I've got a stressful event coming up, then activates the, the stress systems in the body?
I think what's important there is if, if it's anticipated and forthcoming, but you feel in control of it. So if people are, you use the word planning that, that implies some level of being able to control what's going on. And we know that control is really important in terms of stressful situations, you know, we, when we feel that we can control a situation, even if it's stressful or challenging, it reduces the levels of stress associated with it. So if something is on the horizon, but you plan for it, and you feel equipped to deal with it, then your stress level should reduce slightly.
Yeah. I wonder how do you kind of apply all these findings? What is the impact of this research? Are there any kind of practical applications that you found through this line of research about stress and how it affects us over time?
I think just having an understanding of what goes on when people are stressed is really important. A lot of people say, Well, of course, we know that we all get stressed. But actually understanding how and when it happens is really important. I think the anticipation and recovery work is still really new. We've only been doing this for a couple of years. But it does have links to you know, for example, some of the other groups we work with, like emergency services, you know, these folks are have to be psychologically and physically prepared for the events that are going to happen. But we also need them to be able to recover sufficiently. So maybe some of the work that we're doing there, we can start applying elsewhere. We do also do some stress reduction work. And this, this obviously has an impact in reducing stress. But I won't talk too much about that, because that's work I do with Michael Smith, and I think you'll have a long chat with him. At some point in the future. We're a long way off from finding this magical, you know, anti stress bullet. But you know, this, this is kind of what we're trying to work out who gets stressed and why. I guess in terms of other impact, though, something I'm really interested in doing is, is helping people to understand stress. So what what I tried to do is, in all of these research studies, you know, and some of them are a bit wacky, you know, people jumping out of airplanes and stuff. People like to hear about that. So what I try and do is integrate research findings into other work that I do, maybe consultancy work or public engagement work. So I often run stress identification workshops, for example. Now, these aren't stress awareness workshops, these are helping people to understand from a biological perspective, what happens when they get stressed. So people know about the fight flight situation, you know, they've heard about adrenaline and noradrenaline and cortisol, but they don't necessarily understand what it's doing, and why it's doing it. So I've developed a whole range of workshops where I try and just use some of these research examples, which you know, they're quite novel and interesting and a bit wacky, to help people understand that, you know, when the bear jumps out, this is what happens. And actually, stress responding, especially in the short term is not bad, is there to save your life is there to keep you safe, is there to help you deal with the challenges that are about to happen? What's important is understanding when and why the stress responses activate, and then trying to allow some time to recover. So I integrate a lot of these research findings into these workshops and try and get people to share their best, you know, what are the things that stress them out? And we try and dissect that in terms of okay, what is it about these things that are causing stress? We mentioned control earlier, when these people in these workshops, call out all of the different things that cause them stress. Always the biggest category is Things that they can't control. They don't know this at the time of the exercise, but we bring it all together and say, Okay, what are all of these things have in common? Now I've run these workshops with students, lawyers, medics, carers, it doesn't matter what group of individuals or what their general life stress is, like, the biggest category of stressful things for them is things that they can't control. So helping people realize that can then help them understand, well, don't sweat the stuff that you can't control, but try and think about what you can do about it. So yeah, I'm not giving them an answer. But I'm helping them to understand the stress that they experience, the stress responses they experience. And I guess whether when they experience, you know, their heart rate increasing, you can feel that, think about the situation they're in, and whether that actually warrants that response. If they're in an acutely challenging situation, then it's fine that they're experiencing this set of stress responses, they need to be mindful that, you know, in the future, they need to recover. But if they look around, and they realize that they are experiencing a stress response, just because they're thinking about something stressful, then they can maybe take a check on themselves. And this will reduce that stress responding. And again, we know that minimizing unnecessary stress responding over a long period of time is going to be beneficial to the health and well being.
Yeah, that's really interesting. Thank you for sharing that. So my last question is asked everybody, where do you hope to go from here? Do you are you opening up any new lines of research? Are you going to continue the work you've already started? Is there anything interesting or exciting that you're you're hoping to do now?
Okay, so yeah, the the application work, taking stuff that we've learned from you know, skydivers, etc. I've just started a really exciting project with the Great North air ambulance service. So we've got some funding to run this project with them. I've been doing some work with them for a couple of years, great North air ambulance have medics and paramedics working alongside each other in in helicopters, you know, they're the first on scene, massive incidents, and they do amazing work in a very short space of time. They're also really keen on training, and not just training of the medical procedures, but training about all of those other skills that are necessary in emergency situations, communication, knowing when to talk, when not to talk, awareness of those people around you, etc, great author ambulance run a two week training course that involves lots of high fidelity scenario. So really realistic scenarios of the kinds of things that these trainees may experience when they're qualified, we've been able to get into this training course and monitor their psycho biological stress responses during the training course. So they're wearing smartwatches. So we get to measure their heart rate continuously for two weeks, we measure their stress hormones when they wake up in the morning, and before they go to bed. And if we link this back to the anticipation and recovery stuff I was talking about, this is our window into how do they feel when they wake up in the morning, and they are thinking about what they're going to do that day? And how do they feel at the end of the day, maybe when they're lying in bed, reflecting on what's happened that day. Now, bear in mind, they're doing this training course that involves lots of, you know, mega incidents, simulated incidents, they are really realistic, they're highly challenging. And they using all of their knowledge and skills. When they wake up in the morning, it's quite reasonable for them to be thinking, Oh, my God, I've got this big thing happened today. So we can see how that then translates into changes in their biological functioning. And then maybe more importantly, in terms of their long term health and well being when they're lying in bed at the end of the day, and reflecting on how it's gone. Are their biological responses recovering accordingly. So we really want to understand these kinds of responses in these guys that are out there doing really important jobs, but it's really difficult to observe them whilst they're doing these jobs. So this training scenario is as close as we can possibly get to understanding how they function in the real world doing these amazing jobs.
Wow, that's so fascinating. That's a really cool opportunity to do to do a study like that. I'm excited
to see the results. We'll have to wait another year.
Another year. Okay. slowburn. Well, thank you so much, Mark, for sharing all of your knowledge about stress with us today. As we said, Michael Smith will be on in two weeks telling us how we can reduce that stress. Now that we've thought about
it. I stressed them out and he brings them back down.
He calls. So Mark, where can people find you online if they'd like to follow your research?
You can have a look at some of my work on the university websites. or I occasionally bent academic and personal spleen on Twitter. So you can find me on at Dr. mixter on Twitter.
All right, and I will link to Mark's Northumbria page on the show notes. So if you'd like to learn more about Northumbria psychology check out our psychology department blog at Northumbria psi comm You can also follow us on Twitter at Northumbria PS Why do you want you could follow me on Twitter to stay updated on episodes at Brown GE in a V. If you'd like to be interviewed on the podcast or know someone who would please email me at Genavee email@example.com Finally, if you like the podcast, make sure to subscribe to our podcast on your listening app. Give us a review and rating. I hope you've learned something on this voyage into the mind. Take care until next time