Stress is The Word

For a few months now, I had been writing almost weekly a series called Life During Quarantine. In December I was so ready to move from all the negative focus. So many in my area tested positive, and with all the shutdowns, the holidays were grim. My own livelihood was increasing the stress and pressure, with no holiday joy to change the mood. With the new year and vaccines, hope is in sight.  I thought that now I might finally have the levity to discuss stress and its effects. Modern life was already stressful for most, pre-pandemic and now it’s fair to say most people know what it is.

The global spread of COVID-19 has created circumstances that have led to increased levels of stress or anxiety for people everywhere.

About one-third of Americans say they have experienced high levels of psychological distress while following social distancing guidelines, while data from other countries show similar trends. The jarring shift to working and educating children from home, short- or long-term unemployment, increased social isolation, and concern over contracting the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus can all be significant sources of stress—which can take a toll on physical and mental health.

To better understand how stress affects people, several members of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences are exploring the cognitive and physical processes that help everyone adapt, cope, and thrive in ever-evolving environments. Their work began well before the coronavirus pandemic but could produce important insights at a time of high stress around the world. In his previous work, Andrew Wang, M.D., Ph.D., a 2020 Pew biomedical scholar and assistant professor at Yale University in New Haven, discovered that when animals are placed under stress or unfavorable conditions, they are less resistant to and less likely to recover from infections. To determine how stress affects survival, Wang’s lab is exploring how stress factors from fasting, diet, and even social isolation influence how animals manage inflammatory challenges. Through his research, Wang hopes to pinpoint the molecules and uncover the unique biology that helps animals resist disease and boost their chance of survival.

The COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably change the way people perceive and experience the world, affecting how everyone behaves and copes.

To understand how a significant event or stimulus is processed by the brain, Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D., a 2019 Pew biomedical scholar and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, is examining how the brain tags these incidents and retrieves information from past experiences to influence future behavior. His work has the potential to find better solutions for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and could offer more hopeful outlook for coping during and after a global pandemic.  The work by these scholars could have important implications for people today. Each effort emphasizes the need to prioritize physical and mental health while helping people cope with shifts in their environments. Based on what researchers already know, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization offer guidance to help people manage pandemic-related stress.

The first time I thought about the first time I came across the concept of stress in the Nuclear Medicine Department as a test that we performed on heart patients. For many years, my life was idyllic. I was supported, loved, and had a career where I felt I was contributing to the world.  I had not yet faced challenges that caused stress. Little did I know that my life ahead of me would be mostly stressful with moments of the peace and clarity I had in my younger years. The interesting thing is that since I had been so immersed in stress, it made me able to transcend it. What is stress? In medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.

Catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action. These include the following: Acceleration of heart and lung action, paling or flushing, or alternating between both, inhibition of stomach and upper-intestinal action to the point where digestion slows down or stops, the general effect on the sphincters of the body, constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body, the liberation of nutrients (particularly fat and glucose) for muscular action, dilation of blood vessels for muscles, inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation, dilation of the pupil (mydriasis), relaxation of the bladder, inhibition of erection, auditory exclusion (loss of hearing), tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision), disinhibition of spinal reflexes, and Shaking. Stress can cause or influence the course of many medical conditions including psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Medical problems can include poor healing, irritable bowel syndromehigh blood pressure, poorly controlled diabetes, and many other conditions. Stress management is recognized as an effective treatment modality to include pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic components.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. However, these actions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.

Stress during an infectious disease outbreak can sometimes cause the following:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, your financial situation or job, or loss of support services you rely on.
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns.
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Worsening of chronic health problems.
  • Worsening of mental health conditions.
  • Increased use of tobacco, and/or alcohol, and other substances.

How you respond to stress during the COVID-19 pandemic can depend on your background, your social support from family or friends, your financial situation, your health and emotional background, the community you live in, and many other factors. The changes that can happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways we try to contain the spread of the virus can affect anyone.

People who may respond more strongly to the stress of a crisis include:

Taking care of your friends and your family can be a stress reliever, but it should be balanced with care for yourself. Helping others cope with their stress, such as by providing social support, can also make your community stronger. During times of increased social distancing, people can still maintain social connections and care for their mental health. Phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel socially connected, less lonely, or isolated.

  • Know what to do if you are sick and are concerned about COVID-19. Contact a health professional before you start any self-treatment for COVID-19.
  • Know where and how to get treatment and other support services and resources, including counseling or therapy (in person or through telehealth services).
  • Take care of your emotional health. Taking care of your emotional health will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs to protect yourself and your family.
  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
  • Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, consider connecting online, through social media, or by phone or mail.

If you need any help or information, please look at this wonderful resource.

We are constantly multitasking, moving quickly, and being overstimulated, so it’s no wonder stress has become more prevalent than ever. And in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about new types and higher levels of stress for many across the globe. It is widely known that stress can result in psychological issues like depression and anxiety, but do you also know that chronic stress can lead to a host of physiological conditions including heart disease, weight gain or loss, and immune suppression, to name a few?

An amazing opportunity came my way recently. I was on a multidisciplinary zoom call regarding the science of stress. In a Ask Me Anything event, Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences Jean King and professors Angela Rodriguez and Erin Solovey will discuss how WPI research teams are observing stress and how it operates in the body, examining emotions and thoughts, and providing insight into how we can mitigate stress’s harmful side effects. Drs. King, Rodriguez, and Solovey will also provide a peek inside WPI’s Neurotechnology Suite, an experimental hub that provides the potential for effective collaboration among researchers and across departments to accelerate experimental design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation, therefore enhancing our understanding of neural mechanisms, biomarkers, pathologies, and interventions. In fact, stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory. Stress is also a vital warning system, producing the fight-or-flight response. When the brain perceives stress, it starts flooding the body with chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The four things it helps with: improves cognitive function, it enhances childhood development, it helps you dodge a cold, and it for sure makes you one tough cookie.



Cynthia Kosciuczyk, MBA
Cynthia Kosciuczyk, MBA
I took the less-traveled roads which led to many careers. Each of these contributed to my unique mix of expertise: science research, teaching, food, art, and textiles. Owning and operating my own businesses (a bakery, a gallery, and a consulting business) thrust me into the driver seat of learning many diverse roles from customer service to public relations and resulted in my unique management style. Participating in the creation of startups, working in design, and my own businesses and technology endeavors. My quest for knowledge and seeking out the best has turned me into a networking enthusiast. A lifelong passion for textiles and Persian rugs taught me an array of professional skills such as research, writing, and community events. Networking resulted in a multitude of business opportunities. My experiences include Management, Entrepreneurship, Sales, Design, Descriptive Writing, Business Strategy, Color, and Textiles. Every facet of my work and life comes together like pieces of a puzzle. I strive to be a phenomenal networker and problem solver who continues to learn and grow.

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