Research is stressful: what can we learn from science?

Research is stressful: what can we learn from science?

Everybody seems busy nowadays, and for many of us, this results in stress. Scientific research in particular is a highly stressful occupation. Perhaps in reaction to this phenomenon, more and more scientists are starting to explore the biological aspects of stress.

Since there’s a good chance that you will run into stressful situations in your life as a scientist, some of their recent discoveries and insights may be interesting to you…and don’t say we didn’t warn you!

1.     A stress reaction is actually a good thing
When you encounter danger, in the broadest sense of the word, the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline prepares the body for action. Blood is pumped to where it’s needed: muscles and lungs. This way, you can fight or flee, to increase the chance of survival. Senses are sharpened and a memory is formed so as to respond appropriately upon a next encounter. All very useful. This may also explain the urge to run when faced with your thesis committee.

2.     … but it shouldn’t last too long
Problems arise when a stress reaction persists. A stress reaction that becomes chronic causes blood pressure to rise and the immune system to become less effective. Risk of developing psychiatric diseases increases.  This may play a role in the “burnout” that all of us have felt from time to time, when the anxiety over failed experiments has gone on too long.

3.     Who is to blame?
It is tempting to assume that modern city life, with more people on a small surface area, more traffic, more noise, more pressure and constant interaction (whether in real life or digitally) causes more stress than country life. But since the effect of ‘city environment’ on the brain is a rather complex factor to analyze, this has not yet been properly tested. I wonder if agricultural researchers on some remote field study site would be less stressed than those working on a campus in the center of town?

4.     Early experiences have lasting impressions
In a stressful situation (the scientists thought asking the subjects to perform an arithmetic task while receiving constant negative feedback would do) people who grew up in cities showed different brain activity from people who moved to the city at a later age. City dwellers demonstrated activation of another brain region, the cingulate cortex, on top of the activation of the amygdala, a structure involved in emotion processing, which was seen in both groups. The activation of the cingulate cortex, associated with processing of negative emotions, is in line with the idea that stress in childhood may yield overreactivity in later life and predispose individuals to psychiatric disease.

5.     Social experiment
The current urbanisation process that is happening in China at an unprecedented speed forms an ideal study playground for people interested in stress and related disorders. Monitoring so many people who move from the countryside to the city will provide a wealth of information on how environmental and genetic factors affect cognition and functioning.

6.     Stress app
Studies benefitting from modern mobile technology will ask subjects to document on smartphones in what type of environment they are and how they feel about it. Identifying sources of stress or calming features in a city can help urban planners to make cities a healthier place to be. Do you like to eat lunch at the park in the middle of a busy lab day? Or take a walk around the block to get some fresh air? Even before these studies will have proven the calming effect of certain urban features, it can’t hurt to try some other ways to relax from the stresses of the lab.

7.     What determines resilience?
Is there a difference between people who recover from living through their worst nightmare and people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? The latter show shrinkage of two stress-sensitive brain areas: the hippocampus, which is important for memory, and the anterior cingulated cortex, which is involved in reasoning and decision-making. Resilient people appear to have stronger connections between these two areas. These findings may help focus therapy for PTSD and to stimulate resilience. Do you have a friend who works in an MRI lab? Why not get them to sneak you into an imager and check out what’s going on in your brain (physically, that is)?

8.     It’s about length
Telomeres are the structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. Although they can be replenished, they tend to get shorter with increasing age. Chronic stress further decreases telomere length. Short telomeres are associated with increased disease risks. Since chronic stress is linked to similar health risks, it is very possible that shortened telomeres are the route via which stress causes disease. Scientists have managed to replenish telomeres in mice, but it’s too early to do this in humans, as negative side-effects remain a challenge. Luckily, telomere length can be maintained or even be increased by a stress-free period and a healthy life-style. So, if your PI objects to you leaving early on a Friday afternoon to go out for happy hour, just tell them you’re protecting your telomeres…I’m sure they’ll buy it.

9.     New therapeutic targets
Not surprisingly, epigenetic mechanisms come into play as well. These are modifications to the DNA or the histone proteins around which DNA is wrapped that change gene expression without affecting the DNA sequence. In specifically bred mouse lines, stress-sensitive mice show different epigenetic modifications than their resilient friends, specifically in brain regions that are involved in reward recognition. As epigenetic modifications are reversible, the scientists successfully made resilient mice out of previously stressed mice. Development of more specific therapeutic modifiers of epigenetic mechanisms is needed, but future therapies will probably target epigenetic modifications. Those therapies might come in handy when your thesis deadline is approaching!

10.   Stay in touch
Social interaction, and specifically physical touch, stimulates the release of opioids (e.g. endorphins) in the brain, which is good for you. So here’s your excuse to get cosy, or demand a massage. Probably not a good idea to introduce to lab meeting, however: keep it clean, folks.

While the biological consequences of chronic stress become clearer, there is no magic cure or pill that reverses all negative effects. So it’s up to you to take care of yourselves.

How do you keep stress from building up too much?

Nature Vol. 490 2012 News features and comments on ‘Stress and Resilience’  p161-174.

This article was previously published on, an online magazine for cell and molecular biologists.