Stress and health: risk and resilience factors
Stress is known to have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. However, not everyone experiences the negative consequences of stress; many individuals are resilient and may even “thrive” following stress exposure. We are interested in psychological and biological factors that promote resilience following stress, as well as those that increase vulnerability. These include finding meaning or benefit from the experience, positive affect, and other forms of well-being; early life stress; and genetic factors that may influence sensitivity to stress. Our particular focus is on the links between these factors and biological processes that mediate effects on health.
Inflammation and behavior
We all know that it feels “bad” to be sick, and research on neuro-immune interactions has shown that the fatigue, depressed mood, and other symptoms we frequently experience when sick are caused by pro-inflammatory cytokines. Of course, we may experience these symptoms even when we are not ill, and our lab is interested in the possibility that inflammation may influence behavior outside the context of acute illness. Much of our work in this area has focused on fatigue and other behavioral problems that commonly occur in cancer patients (including depression, sleep disturbance, and “chemobrain”), and we have shown that patients who experience these problems do show elevations in markers of inflammation. We are currently conducting research to determine what drives persistent alterations in inflammatory activity following cancer and other stressors – that is, why do some people experience inflammation and associated behavioral symptoms for months or even years after stressful life experiences.
Stress leads to inflammation, which in turn has negative effects on mood, energy, and behavior as well as long-term physical health. Our lab is interested in whether mind-body interventions (yoga, mindfulness, Tai Chi) can reduce stress, inflammation, and behavioral symptoms. We have conducted several randomized controlled trials with cancer populations, and have shown that interventions including yoga and mindfulness have beneficial effects on psychological adjustment and inflammatory activity in breast cancer survivors. We are continuing to develop and test mind-body interventions that can improve mental and physical health and identifying mechanisms for their effects.
Mind-body interactions over the lifespan: early life stress, adolescence, and accelerated aging
There are critical periods in life when mind-body interactions may be particularly important for health. Early childhood and adolescence are periods of elevated risk, when exposure to stressors can lead to poor mental and physical health in later life. At the same time, positive experiences and behaviors during these critical years can enhance long-term health. We are interested in the immune system across development and how it interacts with the brain and body in ways that shape health trajectories over the life course. This includes research on early life stress effects on the immune system and neuro-immune signaling; research on stress, sleep, and inflammation among adolescents; and research on accelerated aging as a key driver of physical and cognitive decline, particularly in the context of cancer.
Stress, inflammation, and tumor progression
Psychological stress has been shown to influence the immune system and lead to increases in inflammation. Recent research on the biology of cancer has demonstrated that inflammation also plays an important role in tumor growth and progression. However, links between stress, inflammation, and tumor biology have rarely been examined. Our lab is interested in how exposure to psychological stress may influence inflammatory processes in breast cancer patients, including tumor-associated inflammation. In research funded by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, we have shown that breast tumors from more socially isolated women show increased expression of genes that are associated with tumor growth and spread. Our current work is focusing on characterizing the immune alterations observed in socially isolated women and identifying mechanisms for these effects, including alterations in upstream neural processes that link psychological stress and peripheral immune activity.