Scientist Julie Dobrovolná: Stress is not our enemy

Julia Dobrovolná studies stress. According to the RECETOX physician and professor, stress should not be seen as just negative, but rather as a natural reaction of the human body. A member of Julia's research group, scientist Lucie Ráčková, has even studied stress in remote Antarctica, where she collected data for the group's research.

4 Mar 2022 Marie Hošťálková

Stress is ubiquitous, especially in the current covid era. But why study the effect of stress on the human body of polar explorers in Antarctica?

In urban environments, stress impacts humans in many ways; although we try to describe these influences effectively, we are unable. On the other hand, the stress response can be monitored much better in a defined geographic setting, with minimal distractions and relatively constant living conditions.

But is it certain that Antarctic explorers experience stress?

Not necessarily. It is certainly possible that some explorers experience isolation not as stress but as a relief from their urban or rather civilizational anxiety. They do not have to pay bills, care for children, or sit in traffic. Recognizing this, we study the explorers also before and after their trip to Antarctica. We are interested in comparing these opposing environments. It is not about the specific stress level that a person experiences, but rather the difference between everyday life and an environment with minimal distractions.

What can cause polar explorers stress?

The mere awareness of the distance from civilization can be stressful, and the knowledge that help is far away in case of trouble or even the actual accommodation conditions. Communication with family and friends in the Czech Republic is limited. In addition to individual reactions to isolation, we also monitor interactions among team members, contributing to or reflecting stress. Although there is not as much pressure to perform in Antarctica, there is a different type of stress. Some find the stay almost therapeutic, while others miss family and friends.

How do you ensure that the data you collect is objective?

Expedition members wear smartwatches that measure heart rate, and Lucie (Ráčková) regularly exports the data from them. In addition, the explorers have a prototype of the Entrant measuring device, which evaluates stress based on a mathematical equation and physiological data. During their stay, study participants also completed a battery of psychological tests. Finally, Lucie conducts semi-structured interviews with the expedition members. The research collects mainly quantitative data, but also some qualitative.

How will the results be used in the future?

The results of this pilot project will be used for preparing more extensive isolation experiments in collaboration with space agencies.

Coming back to Europe and your scientific work... What is the most "current" scientific topic you are working on at the moment?

I have been doing research on stress for a long time, and the very current topic at the moment is war stress. A lot of my work is now moving in this direction.

In an interview for the journal iDnes, you mention that you use a test provided by NASA to measure stress. How difficult is it to get the test from NASA?

We used a test called WinSCAT, which was borrowed from colleagues who developed it at the University of Cadiz in Spain. The test is used to induce stress and is just one of many used by space agencies to test future astronauts. Obtaining this particular test was not complicated. As I mentioned, it is the intellectual property of our scientific colleagues, and they offered it to us. We have several other tests available for our work. For example, we are working with the Faculty of Sports Studies to construct scenarios to assess stress in self-defense.

Has your current research been affected by the coronavirus pandemic? Are there similarities between the pandemic and the war?

The pandemic has been going on too long and has affected our work. Materials supply is problematic, and academic and student mobility have also been affected, further impacting the research.

Certainly, some similarities between pandemics and wars exist, such as disruptions in daily routines, limited availability of materials, and high consumption of news. But in my opinion, these two situations cannot be compared. A pandemic is not an ideology; we fight a biological phenomenon, not a specific human enemy. The killing of a human being by another human being is highly stressful, in a different way than dying from a virus.

And how is your team working currently?

Our research group is diverse; each has different expertise and preferred communication styles. Even before covid, we were used to being flexible. Conducting business online did not hold us back and still does not limit us - we continue to cultivate this communication. Every week I ask colleagues if they prefer face-to-face or online meetings. We arrange our meetings according to their preferences. People want to see each other, but we adapt to avoid disease transmission.

As for communication, the Teams app is a great tool, but its downside is that it doesn't allow creative science. We can't brainstorm creative ideas in an online environment; that's the significant advantage of meeting in person. However, we can easily communicate budgets or deal with other administrative issues online, which is a considerable advantage - especially for parents of young children.

And how do you feel about online learning?

It depends on whether it is a lecture or a practical exercise. Lectures, in my opinion, are not affected. In my own experience, more people have signed up for online lessons than face-to-face classes. The lectures are recorded, allowing the students to access them later on. Some students have even created podcasts of my lectures. I appreciate that they have been so adaptable and creative. An online class is also convenient because you can concentrate more at home without the distractions in a campus lecture hall. The opposite is true for practical lessons where students need to be physically present in the lab. In any case, I see distance learning as a viable teaching option that also allows better engagement of students who are ill or disabled. For that reason, we should keep it in the repertoire as a secondary option.

People have become accustomed to living in the nervousness arising from the uncertainty of the times. How can we get used to such a situation and no longer perceive the continuous stress?

Stress is neither good nor bad for us physiologically. It is an adaptive response to changes in our environment. For me, thinking about stress is thinking about the dynamics and intensity of the stress response. Stress is always here and allows us to adapt to changing environmental conditions, which is a good thing.

Also, if you experience a stressful situation with a good group of people, the social bonds can counterbalance the discomfort. One can also acquire special skills, called coping mechanisms. So, it cannot be said that living under long-term stress is only negative, although it does negatively impact some people. Plus, it seems that what defines whether stress is bad for us is not its intensity but rather its dynamics. Humans tolerate excessive stress very well if it is time-limited; in other words, we handle intense short-term stress better than lower-intensity long-term stress.

And there's one last question. Is there anything you would like to point out at the end of the interview? Something that I didn't ask you but should have?

I want to mention that currently, our environment is changing faster than most of us can adapt. The coronavirus pandemic is being replaced by watching the horrors of war in Ukraine. All of this can lead to a massive increase in anxiety. It is important to remember that this anxiety is not pathological. It is our body's proper response to danger in our environment. Usually, this anxiety is limited in time. I would highly recommend not fighting stress but instead thinking about letting it pass through our body so that it harms us as little as possible. I would also recommend turning our attention away from monitoring our own manifestations of stress or anxiety to support others - it really helps.

Julie, thank you for your time and interesting information and insights. I wish you the best of luck in your future work.

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