Better understanding stress to better manage it

a stressed young woman

Dominique de Quervain and Carmen Sandi are being awarded Optimus Agora Prize. Their project “Stress” encourages interaction with the public.

Stress is part of everyday life. Better understanding it, and knowing how to prevent situations that cause it, improves our quality of life. That’s why neuroscientists Dominique de Quervain, of the University of Basel, and Carmen Sandi, of EPFL, have launched the Agora “Stress” project, which is supported by the SNSF. They will be creating a web-based information platform and organising stress awareness days for the public. The project won this year’s Optimus Agora Prize. The award ceremony will take place in September 2020 as part of the Sciencecomm’20 conference on science communication.

You want to increase the visibility of stress research. Why is it important?

Dominique de Quervain: Everybody knows how it feels to be stressed without knowing much about the mechanisms and available countermeasures. This may have to do with the fact that a lot of the stress research so far has been very basic and only a small part has been shared with the public in an understandable way. Therefore, more visibility for stress research and better communication with the public is urgently needed.

What specifically do you hope to achieve with this project?

Carmen Sandi: The project will be launched in June, for a period of three years. There are two aspects to it. First, we want to set up a web platform to disseminate research knowledge in a form that is accessible to the public. For example, we would like to propose solutions for managing stress at work and preventing burnout, as well as to give people the opportunity to ask questions and to inform them about different situations related to stress. In addition, we plan to organise stress awareness days. They will take place in cities where research laboratories exist, i.e. in Lausanne, Geneva, Fribourg, Bern, Basel and Zurich. These events will include conferences as well as recreational workshops in small groups. The idea is for visitors to experience how the body reacts to stressful situations and how it relaxes. For example, we will use virtual reality to “transport” people in front of an audience or to the top of a mountain. We will explain underlying physiological mechanisms and also organise a visit to research laboratories.

You’re focusing on interactions between scientists and the public. What can such interactions contribute to stress research?

Dominique de Quervain: With respect to stress research, it’s important for scientists to learn about the needs of the population. More and more research fields are moving in this direction. As for the public, they should have more opportunities to get information from experts, rather than from pseudo-experts, whose advice is not evidence-based.

Is stress necessarily negative?

Carmen Sandi: No. To a certain point, stress reactions are positive physiological responses that allow the body to adapt and to mobilise its resources to cope with a variety of challenges. So from an evolutionary perspective, experiencing stress reactions is completely normal. Beyond an optimum level, however, it can lead to depressive symptoms, reduce motivation and have many other negative consequences, such as increasing the risk for burnout, cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

It seems that in this age, stress is everywhere. But is that really new?

Dominique de Quervain: No, it is not a new phenomenon. But the stressors have changed. In the past, it may have been a hard winter; today it is a deadline at work. And right now we are witnessing a new form.

You mean coronavirus?

Dominique de Quervain: Right. The coronavirus crisis is a completely new situation in which several stress factors affect us at once. The fear of the virus itself, the uncertain work situation and the restrictions in social life, to mention a few. At present, no one can estimate the impact of these factors on mental health. A large-scale, nationwide study has been launched to address this question.