January 24, 2020
Stress, and its impact on health, is the broad focus of Annie Ginty’s work. Dr. Ginty, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, is an Association for Psychological Science Rising Star whose research bridges understanding of the ways the mind and body react to stress. In this Baylor Connections, Ginty defines stress, shares tips for recognizing the body’s response to stress and offers practical approaches to managing the unique stressors that listeners face.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Dr. Annie Ginty. Dr. Ginty serves as assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, and the primary investigator at the Baylor behavioral medicine lab. An important question guides Ginty research. How does the brain link psychological experiences such as stress with cognitive biological and behavioral changes that matter for health? Ginty, named in 2018 as a rising star by the Association for Psychological Science, joined the Baylor faculty in 2016, and she's with us today on the program. Dr. Ginty, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here.
Annie Ginty:Thank you for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, I know this time of the semester is always busy. You spent some time traveling, and I know it was a busy 2019 for you, as we saw some of the fruits of your research in various forms, from videos to papers and otherwise, so looking forward to talking about some of that with you today here at during our time on the programs. So curious, when you tell people what you do, when you talk about stress, the brain, the body and health, when you tell people outside education that that's your focus, what are some of their common responses or reactions or comments when you tell them this?
Annie Ginty:Yeah, so when I tell people that I research stress, one of the most common reactions I get is people tell me how stressed they are, and they tell me about the different stress in their life, and then almost always, people make a joke that they'd be an excellent participant for my research. When people find out that I specifically look at how the heart responds to stress, almost everyone indicates that their heart starts racing very fast when they're feeling stressed out.
Derek Smith:So when we talk about stress on the program over the next 20 minutes or so, how do you define stress?
Annie Ginty:So when we're thinking about stress, it's something that perturbs your system or makes it so you no longer have homeostasis. If we think about it from a psychological level, we're looking at something that people perceive in their environment as a threat, or something where they don't have the demands to meet the resources, and for different people, stress looks different. So for some people, stress could be not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or living in an unsafe environment with a lot of interpersonal violence. For college students, we think of stress as things like your next exam or not getting into medical school. For people in the working world, stress could be the high pressures of a high-demand job or trying to balance work life. Or if we think about people like musicians or elite athletes, stress could be constantly having to perform under pressured situations.
Derek Smith:I mentioned that driving research question at the top of the show, so again, how does the brain link psychological experiences such as stress with cognitive biological and behavioral changes that matter for health? Take us deeper inside that question and the way you look at it, and some of the ways that that impacts almost everyone.
Annie Ginty:Yeah. So stress is something, as I mentioned before, that may appear different for everyone, but it's something that happens in all of our lives. We all have different stressors or things that are causing us stress or causing us to feel overwhelmed, and if we think about it, we know stress is universal. People are feeling it at different levels, and research over the past several decades has shown that the amount of stress you have in your environment, whether it's if we ask people things that have happened to them that are stressful, or we ask people to rate how stressed they feel, so their perceptions of what has happened to them, it relates to and predicts development of disease. One of the biggest things it predicts is the development of cardiovascular disease. So people who have more stress are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and my research really aims to understand what's going on in between. What are the mechanisms, or what's happening in a person's body that is causing them to have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease from the stress they experience? Because not every person who has stress is going to get cardiovascular disease. So it's trying to figure out, what about someone's responses in their brain or their cardiovascular system is different from someone else's, and to identify what it is to be able to develop interventions to prevent the increased risk.
Derek Smith:What are some of the areas you would look at in a subject that you're working with, or what are some of the questions you might ask them to try to find where some of those connections might be?
Annie Ginty:So we have people fill out a series of questionnaires about events that have happened in their life. We also have people fill out questionnaires about their perceptions of how they're feeling and their stress in their environment. Then to really understand what's going on at a biological level, we stimulate stress in our laboratory. So we have participants come in, and we measure what their cardiovascular system's doing at rest, so we look at things like blood pressure and heart rate, and then we stress them out. We do this with a variety of different standardized stress tasks. So one thing we do is we have participants do a math task under time pressure, which requires a memory component, while they're being videotaped and while someone's scoring them. Another thing we do is we have people perform a speech with a panel of four people providing basically negative feedback to them while they're giving the speech, or things like a physical stress task of putting your hand in freezing cold water. We look at how their heart and their neuroendocrine or their stress hormones are changing in response to that, and we see the differences in how that then relates to markers of cardiovascular disease, or we follow people up for several decades to look to see who has developed disease or died from cardiovascular disease.
Derek Smith:As we move forward talking about this, are there any misconceptions people have about stress that would be important to address now?
Annie Ginty:Yeah, so one of the most common misconceptions that has fascinated me for the past decade or so is that when people are exposed to something stressful, everyone thinks that their heart rate increases. So everyone talks about, "Oh, my heart was beating so rapidly," and I think it's something that's ingrained in us as just part of our general knowledge. "Oh, I'm stressed out, my heart's racing," but what we know from my research and others is that there's actually big individual differences. So when we're doing those stress tasks I talked about in the laboratory, you get some people whose resting heart rate is 60 beats a minute, and you give them that math task under time pressure, and their heart rate goes up to 120 beats a minute, which would be the equivalent of if they were starting to walk briskly or jog, and they're just sitting there calling out numbers. On the other hand, we have some people who are doing the task, and if their resting heart rate's 60 beats a minute, they're staying at 60 beats a minute. They may appear angry and behaviorally stressed out, but biologically, they're not responding. It turns out that as a species, we're pretty inaccurate at guessing what our biology is doing.
Derek Smith:Why do you think that misconception there? Is it because, as you said, we hear other people saying that and we just assume that's what's happening?
Annie Ginty:I think that's part of it, and on average, people do respond, so we kind of just assume it's a natural response. We learn about fight or flight, and we know that, "Okay, fight or flight, my heart rate is increasing, I'm stressed, my heart rate is increasing," and it's really interesting to try to tease apart what makes one person think that it's this way, but they're actually having a complete opposite cardiovascular reaction.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are talking to Dr. Annie Ginty, and she is an assistant prep professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor. We're going to break this down more here over the next few minutes on the program, but I want to ask you, if you were on a news program, you might just get a sound bite. I want to ask you the sound bite version of the answer to the question,` what should most people know about the body's reaction to stress now? Then we'll really kind of break that down going forward.
Annie Ginty:Yeah, so I think in terms of what most people should know, is that our body is remarkably adoptive. So when we think about a reaction to stress, it actually is requiring everything in your body to respond. So if we take it from what we call the top down perspective, your brain has to process what is happening as something that's threatening to your being, or something that is stressful. That then causes communication with the rest of the body to elicit physiological responses that will allow you to respond to that. So things like your heart rate increasing, your palms sweating, beginning behavioral activation to be able to deal with the stressor. What I think is really remarkable about the human body is, while all that's happening, that's happening in something called the sympathetic nervous system. We have the parasympathetic nervous system, which is actually counteracting to slow things down. It's trying to reduce your heart rate, and that's why when we feel stressed and we cope with it, our heart's not beating super fast hours later, because our body is beautiful in the way that it can maintain that balance. The other thing that people should know is that in the acute term, stress could be good. It can prepare you to respond. Acute stress increases immune function. It's when that stress is happening over and over, day in and day out, that it starts to be detrimental to the body
Derek Smith:To see what that looks like in practice, could you tell us about some of the research projects you've done? You told us about some of the questions and the ways you go about it. What are some of the projects that have been most illuminating for you?
Annie Ginty:Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I think one of the things that has been most interesting is my line of research, looking at individual differences in the way people respond to stress. So as I was talking about earlier, some people have these big responses, and some people don't respond at all, and then some people sit in the middle. What we've shown is that having a large cardiovascular response to stress, so people who are sitting in the lab engaged in a public speaking task, whose heart rate or blood pressure goes up substantially, they're more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. So we've shown it predicts things like high blood pressure, it predicts calcium in your carotid artery, which can be a marker of future risk of stroke, and I was fortunate enough to work on the first paper that showed that that large cardiovascular reaction to stress predicts if you're going to die from cardiovascular disease. So we tested people in their 50s and followed them up over 16 years. We showed that those people who had a big response to stress doing a math task in the lab were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease over a 16 year period. Then the opposite of that is research that's focusing on people who aren't responding to stress. So some people may say, "Well, not responding to stress is a good thing biologically. You're not overreacting," but I have a line of research that shows it's actually related to a number of detrimental behavioral outcomes. It's related to things like depression, addiction. It can predict if people are less likely to succeed at a cessation program for things like smoking, and we've also shown that not responding to stress predicts more rapid cognitive decline with aging.
Derek Smith:So you look at that, it's kind of some scary things to think about. But I know there's some good news in there, when you think about coping, when you think about techniques and what have you. So let's start first with the group that does experience stress. If a test subject realizes that, if they read your research and they thought, "Oh boy, I got stressed during that test," that correlates to some things that aren't real pleasant down the line. What can they do with that? What do they do with that? What would you encourage them to do?
Annie Ginty:Yeah. So one thing is people often don't realize what their biological response is, and we're looking at these things at a kind of level of multiple participants. So just because you have one response doesn't mean you're going to have X outcome, but in terms of ways to cope with stress, while people are pretty inaccurate at what their biology is doing, we know that there are successful ways to cope behaviorally with stress, or things that can do. So one area of research that we're currently exploring is looking at high intensity interval training. So doing hard exercise in short bouts to try to reduce your overall stress and improve your overall health. We've been partnering with local organizations, the Cove and Boys and Girls Club to do these studies in adolescents who live in pretty stressful environments. So I think it's about finding what's good for you to cope, and then utilizing those skills.
Derek Smith:What about the opposite end of the spectrum, those who maybe don't have that immediate response to stress, but are at risk for maybe some of those longterm behavioral challenges, like you said, like addiction, depression, or otherwise?
Annie Ginty:Yeah. So that line of research is really in its infancy. Up until probably about 2010, people didn't even think about what not responding to stress would mean, because it was considered good. Myself and other researchers have really started to show that it's associated with these detrimental outcomes. So we're currently exploring ways to understand what's happening at the neural level, what's happening in the brain during this, to try to develop appropriate interventions to be able to help people. At the very least, right now we know that not having a biological response to stress predisposes you to these addictions and things such as that. So we're able to use it as a way to maybe identify people who need more help with treatments and things like that.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Annie Ginty, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor. Just talking to you here, so far, you've talked about the brain, the body, health. Didn't mention diet, but I'm assuming there's some elements in there too. What disciplines come together to impact the work you do? Because it seems like there's a very broad area of streams you could take when studying this.
Annie Ginty:Yeah, there definitely is a broad area. So in terms of disciplines that come together, we have psychology, neuroscience, physiology, some aspects of sport science play into it, and definitely levels of public health. It's truly an interdisciplinary science.
Derek Smith:When did you know that you had an interest in studying this topic? Was there a class or an event or something that really sparked that in you?
Annie Ginty:Yeah, that's something that I often get asked, and truthfully, my interest began in high school in this area. I had a biology teacher who, at the time, maybe I didn't appreciate how wise she was, and she used to talk to us in our biology lectures about the importance of psychology and how your mind could influence your body, and hearing her talk about that in different ways planted a seed with me. Then when I was an undergraduate, I took a class on psychophysiology and health, and it really started to click that the mind is pretty powerful, it can change our physiology, and understanding the ways that connects is a way that we can help prevent disease in the future.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Annie Ginty, and you released some practical tools to help students think through some of these topics. Last year, released videos for students about coping mechanisms for stress. You did that with your collaborator, Sarah Pressman from UC Irvine. Take us a little bit inside that project, how the materials came together, and how you determined that video format was the best way.
Annie Ginty:Yeah, so Dr. Pressman and I are both trained in looking at emotions and physiological responses to stress. She often focuses on things like positive emotions and positive coping, and we were able to secure funding from the AXA research fund, which is invested in kind of risk at a level all the way from environmental risk to population risk. They are invested in having community engagement at a level of using evidence-based research. So Dr. Pressman and I teamed up and thought that short videos were a way we could reach a broad audience of students through things like social media, through different emails from various universities, and really teach them through the evidence of stress, where we are, and to combat some misconceptions and then show them effective ways to cope with stress.
Derek Smith:What are some of the topics they might find?
Annie Ginty:So the videos is in three short, about two minute videos, and the students can find first kind of how stress relates to health, so research showing that, and then talking and breaking it down of how your biological system responds to stress and why certain biological responses are bad for health, and then finally coping with stress, effective ways to cope.
Derek Smith:How have you been able to gauge the response to those so far?
Annie Ginty:We're able to track how many people click the videos, and it's been very interesting. We see when we look at the number of hits each video receives that a decent amount of people are interested in stress and health, a lot less people are interested in how stress affects your body, and a whole lot of people are interested in the effective ways to cope with stress, which makes sense. People want the kind of solution or the answer to the problem.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Annie Ginty. That's one example of your research. You've given a couple of others, but your colleagues in psychology and neuroscience doing a lot of fantastic research. We've had Sarah Dolan and Michael Scullin talking about their research on the program in months past. What's that environment like when you've got a lot of colleagues around you? You're doing some work at a high level.
Annie Ginty:It's a really exciting time to be at Baylor in general, and to be in the department of psychology and neuroscience. I'm constantly amazed and stimulated by the environment, because I see colleagues doing really cutting edge research that is very broad in the field of neuroscience and psychology. So as you mentioned, we have colleagues looking at things like sleep, ways to better assess trauma. I have colleagues looking at things like the neural mechanisms of epilepsy, and other colleagues assessing the ways that teens develop character. So working in an environment that's truly interdisciplinary shows me how broad the field of psychology and neuroscience truly can be.
Derek Smith:I'm talking with Dr. Annie Ginty, as we head into the final few minutes on the program. You've already mentioned some of them, but I want to ask more specifically, maybe we can now arm people with some practical tips that they can take away here. When it comes to recognizing their own responses to stress first, how should people examine and evaluate how they respond to things in their own environment? Maybe things that they see repeatedly.
Annie Ginty:Yeah, that's a really good question. I think one of the most important things people can look at is how they're responding emotionally and behaviorally. So we may not have a quick answer of how to change our biological responses, but working to change the way that you respond in aspects that you have control. So we did a study last year where we manipulated how people were viewing the stress task. So we said to people, rather than feeling that your heart rate is increasing and you're anxious and that's a bad thing, say, "Maybe that means I'm ready. Maybe that means I can take this challenge head on and perform well." We showed just by giving people that advice in a few sentences before they did the stress task, and we had another group where they didn't get any advice, that it actually changed how they responded in terms of their emotions and the level of anxiety they experienced.
Annie Ginty:So people who saw it more as a challenge felt that they were more able to cope with it. They felt that their heart rate went up less, even though it didn't, and they felt that their level of anxiety was less hurtful to the way they were going to perform on the task.
Derek Smith:Finally, I'll ask you, you mentioned exercise interval training, but just to bring it home again, what are some ways people can build things into their lifestyle that can lead to maybe healthier responses to stress and better health in general?
Annie Ginty:Yeah, so we know there's a variety of ways to cope with stress, but it's also to remember that everyone's different, and what is good for someone may not be good for someone else. So for some, it could be high intensity interval training, whereas for someone else, it may be something like meditation or yoga. For others, it may be things like writing down what they're thankful for that day, or writing down their thoughts to kind of release some of that anger. I think for people, it's about trial and error to figure out what really works best for them.
Derek Smith:Last question, what's next on your plate? Do you have any projects ahead that you're excited about?
Annie Ginty:So we recently received a large grant from the National Institute of Health, a career development award, and I'm very excited about that. So one of the things that we look at in my lab is the response to stress that's in excess of what's appropriate. So I didn't talk much about this, but when people exercise, that's a stress in your environment, but people see it as a good thing. When people exercise, your heart goes up and your metabolic system goes up. So everything's increasing, but you're kind of maintaining that perfect balance. But during psychological stress, your heart goes up, it's working harder, but your metabolic system's not changing. So that creates an imbalance, or the body is out of homeostasis, and that's the pathway that we think that psychological stress can lead to cardiovascular disease. The constant wear and tear on the heart. Do we're going to do a study where we're looking at the metabolic response and the cardiovascular response to see individual differences in that imbalance, and then we're going to do neuroimaging in partnership with the VA Center of Excellence. We're going to look at what their brain's doing. So what pattern in the brain is happening? We're going to use analyses to basically be able to look at somebody's brain responses and predict how much their heart is going to respond in excess of what's appropriate, and that'll allow us down the line to develop interventions, which you were asking about coping for stress, that are aimed at targeting the physiology.
Annie Ginty:So the second part of that study is using neurostimulation of the brain to see if we change the way the brain is functioning, making it function more optimally. Can we change the cardiovascular response? So can we reduce the physiological mechanism through which stress causes disease?
Derek Smith:Well, that's very exciting. Congratulations on that award, and we'll look forward to seeing some of the fruits of that down the line. We'll be talking to you again.
Annie Ginty:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Dr. Annie Ginty, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.