Czech scientist Julie Dobrovolná on measuring stress

Julie Dobrovolná

Czech scientist Julie Dobrovolná has devoted a significant part of her career to the research of stress. She is currently heading a team at Masaryk University’s RECETOX centre, which is developing a new method of measuring stress.

How exactly can stress be measured? How demanding is the current coronavirus crisis? And were our ancestors more resilient to stress than we are? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Julie Dobrovolná and I started by asking her to define the meaning of stress:

“The definition of stress is used in so many contexts that it is extremely difficult to explain. In physiology, it refers to various physiological reactions, while in psychology, it can refer to negatively perceived situations. In biology it means various environmental factors that affect the cell, organs or the body..

“And in clinical medicine, we perceive stress as a risk factor that contributes to the development of a disease. We don’t know much about the underlying factor, but we presume that there is some sort of psychological component involved. So it’s a very difficult question to answer.”

Stress is usually perceived as something negative and harmful to our bodies. Do we need stress? Can certain amounts of stress be beneficial?

"Some researchers believe that a short-term boost of stress can strengthen the immune system and even protect the body against some diseases and ageing."

“Today, researchers are definitely focusing on the positive effects of stress. Some researchers believe that a short-term boost of stress can strengthen the immune system and even protect the body against some diseases and ageing.

“It is also documented that people who experience moderate levels of stress, for example before surgery, recover better than those with high or very low levels of stress.

“There are also studies suggesting that stress could help prevent breast cancer as it suppresses the production of estrogen. So the relationship between disease and stress is not linear. It is much more complicated and there are definitely upsides to it.”

Your team at Masaryk University in Brno has been working on developing a novel stress measurement methodology. Why do you want to measure stress?

“We are focussing on the development of a novel, thermodynamic approach that takes into account the whole body. Unlike other researchers, we are not interested in the underlying metabolic pathways within the body. We are much more focused on the body as a whole, specifically on respiration and thermal management of the body.

Photo: patrisyu,  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“So our thermodynamic model approaches the calculation of stress based on the entropy that is proportionate to the heat released from the body. And this entropy, in our opinion, can be calculated.

“We would like to come out with a safety time calculation that could be used for various occupational applications. For instance, if you are a pilot and you are under stress, it could be useful to know that you can endure such situations for 20 or 30 minutes before having to withdraw.

“We would also like to develop applications that could be used for boosting stress resilience, because that is really our main interest: How can we improve our resilience and how can we become more resilient to stress?”

I know you have also been cooperating with the Army, haven’t you?

“We have multiple collaborations, some of them with the defence forces. We would like to understand how some of the challenging situations soldiers or police officers go through translate into stress. We collaborate with the defence on developing potential “stressful” scenarios.”

How far are you in the development of this measurement technology?

Illustrative photo: Czech Army

“Two years ago we received a grant support from the European Space Agency for prototyping a stress measurement device. At the moment, the prototype is ready and debugged, so it’s ready to be used.

“Now we are moving to a further phase in our research, which means using the prototype in various test scenarios. Basically, we want to use it in different stressful situations to see what kind of results we obtain.”

I believe you also plan to use it in hospitals, especially emergency units.

“Definitely. This is the other direction of our research. In critical care, in ventilated patients, we have quite an easy access to all the variables that we need for calculating stress levels.

“We can also contextualize these stress level for instance with the patient’s prognosis. So, in an ideal scenario, we will be able to predict whether the patient will get better or worse. That might be also useful in clinical practice.”

You mentioned your cooperation with ESA, but as far as I know, you have also been cooperating with NASA. In what way exactly?

Photo: skeeze,  Pixabay,  CC0

“Our cooperation with NASA is an indirect one. We are using a battery of tests developed by NASA for their astronauts to induce their mental stress.”

Can resilience to psycho-social stress be trained or are our stress reactions innate?

“I would definitely say that stress reaction itself is an inborn mechanism. We are all born with this kind of mechanism; we don’t learn it and even a new-born can have a very pronounced stress reaction. But as for stress resilience, especially to various psychological and socio-economical stressors, it can be learned and improved.

“So while we are all born with some sort of reactions, we express some degree of individual variability, which can be worked upon. We can definitely boost our resilience and we can improve it.

“I can see it now in my surroundings: while some people shift towards a higher resilience, others don’t. Because we are going through a very stressful time at the moment.”

So basically 2020 was like a testing ground for our stress resilience…..

“I would definitely say that stress reaction itself is an inborn mechanism. But as for stress resilience, it can be learned and improved."

“2020 was definitely a very difficult year. There was a study by some historians, who actually investigated what was the most stressful year in the world’s history and 2020 placed in the sixth spot.

“There were even worse years, such as the peak year of the Black Death or the year without a summer, when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia blocked out the Sun for several months, but 2020 was very difficult too. So I would definitely agree.”

Do you think that society’s ability to deal with stress changed over time? Would you say our ancestors were perhaps more resilient to stress?

“It would be very tempting to say that our ancestors had greater resilience to stress. They were definitely more exposed to adverse events, such as wars, at least in this part of the world. But I would be very careful about making any kind of generalisations.

“Parallels have been drawn between what we are going through today and the Spanish flu in 1918, but it is very difficult to compare.

“What we can definitely see is the evolution of stress resilience. It has evolved from the acute state that we were in last year, in March and April, to the resistance stage that we have today.

Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“Most of us still have some resources and are trying hard to adapt. However, there are people who have already run out of resources and who are really exhausted and depressed. In a way it’s a normal reaction but it has to be addressed and we have to support these people.”

To end on a more personal note, how do you yourself deal with the situation we are facing at the moment?

“I have spent most of last year working from home with my two kids, which was extremely demanding for me. It has brought along a specific set of challenges, such as social isolation or Zoom fatigue.

“On the whole I would say I still have some resources, so it is not as bad as it could be. But it’s definitely difficult.”