Stress Fest at the Stress Test – A visit to Prof. Dr. Pia-Maria Wippert’s laboratory
A plain white room in historic Building 12 at Am Neuen Palais campus, a table, three chairs. There is nothing to indicate that things are about to get stressful here. Or is there? In front of the table is a microphone in a stand, on the back wall is a mirrored window through which everything that happens here can be observed from the next room, unnoticed. A video camera sits upon a tripod in one corner.
“The setting is standardized to a tee,” explains Pia-Maria Wippert, Professor of Medical Sociology and Psychobiology. Standardized for stress tests, which are regularly performed here in the laboratory the scientist has set up specifically for her research. One of her main areas of research is how stress arises and, above all, how it affects us. But to find that out, stress must first be induced and, of course, recorded and analyzed.
“The test is supposed to trigger stress,” the researcher explains. “Because that’s what we want to measure.” This happens, among other things, in the form of the hormone cortisol, which enables us to perform when it counts. In such situations, the body releases noradrenaline and adrenaline in addition to cortisol. With their help, the brain quickly receives glucose to help us concentrate and function under pressure. Cortisol also raises blood pressure, accelerates the respiratory rate, and makes the heart pump faster. At the same time, the stress hormone has positive effects on the immune system and curbs inflammation processes. It can be detected in our saliva, for example. That is why up to eight saliva samples are taken before, during, and after the test – depending on what the researchers are looking at – to determine how cortisol levels change. Since it takes a while for the hormone to take effect in the body, the stress test actually starts before the interview: Test subjects prepare for it by themselves, unaware of what is to come. That’s when the body flips the switch already. Things really kick off ten minutes later.
Three people enter the room, take their seats behind the table, place documents in front of themselves. A young man then enters, is asked to step up to the microphone facing them. He seems tense, trying to stay calm. The three in front of him have stern, blank expressions. That probably doesn’t help. He is asked to do reverse calculations, quickly. He seems strained, the examiners are unsatisfied. Merely watching this exchange already causes stress. How might the “testee” feel?
“We actually experience stress reactions on different levels,” Pia-Maria Wippert says. “For example, emotionally, it directly affects our mood, but also cognitively, as we assess and review the situation right away.” In turn, the physiological response most often associated with stress is itself complex. After all, five hormone axes are involved and are – quite intentionally – imbalanced by the release of cortisol and the like. Because stress is not bad per se, the scientist underlines. “We need a certain kind of tension to be able to adapt to different situations. When we are healthy and have enough resources, we are not ‘stressed out’ in these situations, but grow as a person.” Our body usually possesses systems to end cortisol release and restore the balance. Stress becomes a problem, when it catches us off guard, when our body is exposed to stress peaks that are too frequent or too intense. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to this in certain developmental phases, explains Pia-Maria Wippert. “Especially in the first years of life, the brain develops considerably and is in direct exchange with the formation of hormone axes. Strong stress reactions, caused by early-childhood trauma for example, can lead to a dysfunction, i.e. a reprogramming of the function level of hormone axes and consequently have life-long consequences. But relentless cortisol release is not good for adults either. “When there are no more rest periods for the body to find its balance, or a serious incident leads to very strong stress reactions, there will be excessive strain and wear-and-tear effects.” The fact that we are brought to our knees under constant stress is called “allostatic load” in scientific research. This load can make us sick, and in various ways: Cardiovascular, autoimmune, psychological disorders and diabetes are now associated with stress, as are impairments of bones, cell regeneration, the digestive tract, and DNA. Stress can literally break us.
Pia-Maria Wippert also investigates the effects of stress on our bones and has made astounding discoveries: “We were able to show that in people with high stress levels, bone metabolism is altered and there can be a decrease in bone density.” That means they break more easily and heal more poorly.
A second important research focus of Potsdam’s stress research is the question of how this affects other relevant diseases, such as musculoskeletal disorders. “Pain disorders are ‘number 1’ in the world. And they will become more prevalent,” says the researcher. “Currently, there are about 540 million people worldwide suffering from unspecific pain in their lower back.” In various projects, such as the “MiSpEx” project or currently the “RENaBack” project, she and her team have investigated how stress fuels the development of chronic pain – and how we can help those affected. For this purpose, the researchers have now studied up to 5000 people from the general population as well as patients of rehabilitation clinics: They analyzed blood, hair, urine, and miRNA for stress markers, conducted extensive interviews, and often followed those affected for several years. “That is how we were able to reduce the number of possible psychosocial parameters that are significant for the transition of an acute pain episode into a chronic progression from 250 to eight,” says the researcher. “For example, social situation, vital exhaustion, critical incidents, and stress play an important role.” Based on this, the team developed diagnostics as an early-warning system and an intervention that helps those affected re-stabilize their permanently imbalanced system – through moderate training tailored to the individual.
The stress test is now over, the young man has been “dismissed”. Work behind the mirror glass pane is just beginning: This is the real laboratory of Pia-Maria Wippert. Because the team analyzes the saliva samples directly on site, consolidates the results with the evaluations of the video recordings. This is the only way to carry out the large-scale on-site studies, through which the researcher intends to get to grips with stress.
This text was published (in german version) in the university magazine Portal - Zwei 2023 (PDF).