Photo of lake at the top bleeds into a photo of cars driving in traffic; the headline "Rising Above the Strain" is in the middle of the two

by H.M. Cauley

Some days during his commute to Georgia State, Ken Rice comes face to face with the subject he studies: Stress.

“On a good day, the drive takes an hour, but the other day, it took two,” said Rice, who holds the college’s Ken and Mary Matheny Endowed Professorship in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services. “I could have gotten frustrated, but I would have still been stuck.”

Alongside Professor Jeff Ashby, Rice co-directs the Center for the Study of Stress, Trauma and Resilience, where researchers analyze how people cope with stressful situations. Opened last fall, the center grew out of conversations the two had with colleagues who were also studying stress.

“We know that stress is at epidemic proportions,” said Ashby. “It has direct physiological effects, some of which undermine performance and health. We want to help people manage and even prevent a certain level of stress.”

The center connects a broad range of scholars studying a myriad of stress-centered issues.

“We thought a center would be helpful to develop some energy around collaboration and move some of the research into the community,” said Rice. “And with so many different people and topics, there are also a variety of methodological approaches. There’s not just one way we’re doing it.”

One study brings subjects into a laboratory environment and exposes them to something potentially stressful — for example, the activity of public speaking. Rice’s own project studies perfectionists.

“We hook them up to equipment that measures heart rate and blood pressure, and get them thinking about something that’s pretty stressful, usually around perfectionist expectations. Then we measure the effects of different interventions,” he said.

Other researchers are delving into topics around refugees and their ability to cope with the stress of upheaval and change, how people in Botswana are handling severe drought, and the stressful challenges of post-stroke victims with aphasia. Kinesiology and Health associate professor Rebecca Ellis is looking into what motivates people to increase and maintain physical activity.

“Our main interest is to see if physical activity helps with stress,” said Ellis, who has a background in sport and exercise psychology. “Is it related to making yourself more self-compassionate? If you set a goal for losing weight or being active, and you miss one day, instead of just giving up, do you say, ‘It’s just one day. I can turn things around tomorrow’? From these sorts of data, we can put together a self-compassion intervention.”

The practical applications of such studies are particularly important today, when people are subject to increasing numbers of stress factors that can lead to major health complications.

“There’s a broad interest in stress management and the potential for people to get better at it,” said Rice. “Sometimes that’s just knowing how to react to frustration. I know if I could get out of my car, move that semi out of the way (after an accident) and get people proper medical care, then we could all be on our way. I also know I can’t do that. But there may be a combination of cognitive and behavioral approaches that can help people become more aware of how their own thinking exacerbates the process.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2016 issue of IN Magazine, the college’s biannual magazine.