Psychobiological Correlates of Stress & Health

Twitter @DrMinkster
I am a Professor of Psychobiology and Health Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University.  I am also registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) as a Practitioner Health Psychologist and I am the Associate Director of the Northumbria Sleep Research Laboratory, Newcastle UK.  I am a member of the Health in Action Group and lead the Stress Research theme working with colleagues Dr Michael Smith and Brian Lovell.  I am also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Melbourne and collaborate with Professor Andrew Scholey and colleagues on a range of stress-related nutraceutical projects. Prior to this, I held various post-doc posts (University of Plymouth, Bristol University, Medical Research Council) assessing the links between psychosocial factors and health in a range of healthy and clinical populations
I have responsibility for Postgraduate Health Psychology and I am the programme leader for the MSc in Health Psychology which is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS) in accordance with the Division of Health Psychology and provides the first stage of practitioner training necessary for subsequent registration with the HCPC as a Health Psychologist.
Twitter @HealthPsychUNN


My primary research area concerns exploring the psychobiological pathways through which psychological (e.g., stress) and behavioural (e.g., illicit drug use, lifestyle) can lead to deleterious effects on aspects of health, well-being and performance.  In other words, how stress gets inside us and why it has different effects on different people. I have worked with a range of clinical (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, IBS, chronic fatigue), occupational (e.g., medical professionals, firefighters), sports (e.g., elite rowers) and healthy populations, as well as individuals experiencing chronic stress (e.g., parent carers of children with autism and / or ADHD). This research involves a range of psychological and biological (nervous, endocrine and immune systems) methods, but it is the appropriate combination of these methods that allow for a comprehensive assessment of an individual's response to stress.

In order to assess the effects of stress it is necessary to study people at times when they are experiencing stress. This can be done in 2 ways:

1) Assess individuals who are experiencing higher levels of stress due to characteristics of their lifestyle (e.g., high stress jobs, informal caregiving, socio-economic factors, recreational drug use etc) in relation to individuals who are experiencing lower levels of stress or a period of lower stress (e.g., examinations vs holiday periods)

2. Bring individuals into the lab to observe how they respond to a controlled, acutely stressful event and use these responses to make predictions regarding how an individual might respond to a stressful event outside the lab.
1) Measuring Stress in the Field
Basal functioning of stress mechanisms

A range of psychobiological mechanisms can be measured to provide indices of basal functioning. For example, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is responsible for a variety of regulatory functions, especially at times of high stress or demand.  Appropriate measurement of the activity of the HPA axis, e.g., through the measurement of cortisol (the end product of HPA activation) can, therefore, provide important information regarding the  biological pathways by which  psychological factors (e.g., stress) can  influence physical and psychological health.

I am currently assessing key indices of HPA axis function, for example, the cortisol awakening response (CAR) , diurnal slope and total secreation across the day as potential pathways that link psychobiological factors to health processes in a number of populations.
Circadian cortisol secretion & measurable parameters
One population of particular interest is those who have informal caregiving responsibilities for another, for example a spouse or family member.  Caregiving is associated with high levels of psychological distress which, through the overactivation of the HPA axis can lead to increased vulnerabilityto ill-health. Such effects are debilitating for the carer but can also have direct effects on the care recipient.  We are currently assessing the psychobiological consequences of caregiver stress in parents with children with autism and developing techniques that can be used to reduce the impact of stress on psychological and physical health.
Most recently we have been exploring the role of the CAR in anticipation of forthcoming events.  In a range of studies we are observing changes in the CAR in relation to expected stressful events (e.g., taking part in a competition or attending the laboratory for testing), and manipulating subsequent levels of demands associated with these events (e.g., change or remove the stressor).  We have recently completed a study using skydiving as a real life stressor and this has led to a new PhD programme exploring the psychobiological effects of anticipation and demand with Dr Michael Smith and Olivia Hare.
2) Measuring Stress in the Lab
Acute Stressor Paradigms

       Acute / lab stressors should provide a ‘system snapshot’ of how that individual would respond to‘real’ acutely stressful stimuli

(Wetherell et al., 2006)

The Multitasking Framework (Purple Research Solutions) is a performance based platform for the presentation of tasks and can be used to represent environments where an individual must attend and respond to several stimuli simultaneously. The Framework typically elicits a range of psychobiological responses indicative of an acute response to stress and is currently employed in a wide range of studies in healthy and compromised (e.g., recreational drug users) populations to assess performance during cognitive demand / stress.

 Some examples of Multitasking Framework configuration


The effects of increasing objective workload on perceived workload demand
We use the Framework is a range of studies to elicit workload stress analagous to the types of stresses and demands that people experience in busy working environments.  We also combine the Framework with other stress components, for example critical social evaulation to create bespoke stressor paradigms for our research projects.