My students and I conduct research on social and psychological factors involved in the development and course of physical and mental health problems. With regard to physical health, our primary focus is heart disease, a leading killer. With regard to mental health, our primary focus is anxiety/anxiety disorders, a highly prevalent set of conditions.
Our main approach is psychophysiological. The body’s response to the perception of threat, and to efforts to cope with threats, includes changes in the autonomic nervous system and in cardiovascular activity that, over time, appear to lead to the development of heart disease. Biological responses to threat may also serve as markers to identify individuals who are at risk of developing post–traumatic stress disorder. The concept of psychological stress plays an important role as a framework for understanding these processes, as do theories of emotion and motivation.
Another approach involves the examination of social beliefs, experiences, and behaviors that play a role in physical and mental health problems. Belief systems are in part responsible for what it is that people find threatening. They also influence or inhibit the performance of behaviors that may work to prevent the development of physical and mental health problems, including decisions to undergo medical screening or to seek psychotherapy. In other words, exposures to psychological threats and ensuing coping responses do not occur in a vacuum. They reflect characteristics of a person including gender-related beliefs, beliefs about physical and mental health problems and their treatment, race/ethnicity, prior exposure to psychological trauma, and personality.
Among specific projects currently underway are:
(1) Psychophysiology of Gender-Related Threat: How do stressful events associated with one’s gender-related beliefs affect the autonomic and cardiovascular systems? How do people cope with these events? Do physiological and behavioral effects of these events increase the risk of heart disease?
(2) Electrocortical Measurement of Threat Sensitivity: Can measurement of the brain’s electrical activity (EEG) help us to understand cognitive, affective, and social processes activated by psychological treat? Can it help to identify individuals who are especially sensitive to certain forms of threat, and predict how they will cope?
Students in our research group gain experience conducting experimental research involving laboratory techniques for acquiring and analyzing psychological, behavioral, and physiological data in human subjects. Although these are by no means requirements, preference will be given to students with skills/knowledge in biology, computers/programming, electronics, and/or statistics, who plan to attend graduate school or medical school, who are interested in research careers, and who are willing to make at least a one-year commitment to work with us. We welcome students from a variety of majors, including psychology, biological sciences, and engineering. Many of our former students are now physicians, professors, clinical psychologists, and medical researchers.