Psychology research focuses on stress

— Dr. Emilie Beltzer

Stress is a part of everyday life for most people. It can interfere with normal living, causing both physical and mental health problems.

Psychology professors at Henderson State University often tackle the topic of stress in their classrooms. But stress also serves as a research subject on campus.

“The study of stress is, in fact, a readily studied focus across many traditional disciplines, including psychology, medicine, sociology, and others,” said Dr. Emilie Beltzer, assistant professor of psychology at Henderson State University. “Yet, we (as researchers) are a long way off from fully understanding the links between stress and health.”

Stress can be defined in many ways, said Beltzer, who studies how people respond physiologically to situations of acute stress.

“I became interested in this because there is certainly a prevalence of chronic stress that has horrible health implications,” she said. “There are a number of conditions attributed to chronic stress.”

As part of her research, Beltzer measures people’s responses to different types of stressors. 

“In the study that I am working on in collaboration with chemistry and math colleagues, we are examining cortisol (physiological stress) and anxiety responses to exam-taking among undergraduate students in introductory algebra,” Beltzer said. “For example, we are measuring self-esteem as one possible factor. We are examining how physiological and psychological states of stress relate to students’ exam performance.”

Beltzer is also working on a project that requires some participants to prepare and deliver a public speech, while others observe the delivery of those speeches. Saliva samples are collected several times during the 90-minute study to capture the physiological responses in both systems.

“I recently submitted a proposal, along with Dr. Aneeq Ahmad, chair of the psychology department, for a $10,000 research grant in which we would use the same paradigm described above, but would focus on ethnic minorities,” Beltzer said. “We would also focus on other predictor and outcomes measures, including early childhood adversity (abuse and neglect), individual trait factors related to coping tendencies, and outcomes like smoking behavior and physical and psychological health symptoms.

“This project’s findings could have meaningful applications in areas of intervention and prevention, stress reduction programs, and psychotherapy.”

Beltzer said she is most interested in what accounts for differences in individuals. “I want to know why some can experience adversity or lots of stress, and appear almost resilient, while others just become debilitated and experience chronic health problems,” she said.

“Our bodies are quick to respond to acute stressors. After the stressor is gone, we go back to a balanced state,” Beltzer said. “But that isn’t the case a lot of the time.

“We see individuals who express these inappropriate physiological responses to stress, or they don’t respond at all. There’s an imbalance.”

Ultimately, Beltzer hopes to model different factors that reliably contribute to states of physiological imbalance due to stress.

“I want to develop a theoretical model based on science and research that can help to explain some of these stress-related outcomes,” she said.

The Department of Psychology at Henderson State offers an experimentally based curriculum designed to prepare students for graduate study and careers in all areas of psychological science including, but not limited to, clinical and counseling psychology. Henderson’s psychology faculty are involved in a variety of research projects on campus.

To learn more about Henderson’s psychology program, go to hsu.edu/psychology.