Stress and Health: two projects explore effects of anxiety and stress on young and old people

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DFG funds projects FEARFALL and MODSTR

Two projects at the Chair of Health Psychology are receiving funding from the DFG. The project ‘FEARFALL: Chronic stress level and functional health in older adults: the impact and role of fear of falling’ was launched on 1 June 2022 and is a joint project together with the Institute for Institute for Biomedicine of Aging (IBA, Dr. Sabine Britting) at FAU. Over the funding period of three years, FEARFALL will be receiving about 620,000 Euro.

The project MODSTR: Modification of Biological Stress Response Patterns through Experimental Manipulation of Cognitive Coping Strategies (with Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt) was also launched on 1 June. Prof Dr. Nicolas Rohleder, Chair of Health Psychology, and Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt, researcher at the Chair, are receiving funding over 500,000 Euro over a funding period of four years.

More about the projects:

Project FEARFALL requires both psychological and geriatric expertise. Older people wish to remain physically fit and independent, but muscle mass and strength decrease with age. This natural process is accelerated if people are afraid of falling and therefore move less.

First studies by the two chairs involved have supported the assumption that concerns about falling not only lead to less exercise, but also increase inflammatory markers in the blood. It has also been proven that prolonged stress and anxiety are associated with an increase in inflammatory activity, which in turn accelerates the deterioration of muscle. This creates a vicious circle which eventually does factually increase risk of falls. Thus, physical exercise is not sufficient prevention and stress should also be reduced.

In the present study, an intervention group will be participating in a combination of physical and cognitive-behavioural training whereas the control group will be attending lectures on health-related topics. Stress will be measured on a scale for perceived stress and in the stress hormone cortisol in saliva. Various interleukins, proteins and hormones can indicate provide information about the inflammatory status. The goal is to find out whether reducing the fear of falling leads to a decrease in stress and thus prevents chronic inflammations. The study will enable researchers to develop new methods of slowing or inhibiting the degenerative cycle of anxiety and age-related loss of muscle mass.

The project MODSTR is equally concerned with stress: it is dedicated to the relationship between chronic stress and chronic-inflammatory illnesses. In this project, however, the focus is on young people.

To find out how biological stress systems can be influenced, two stress intervention programmes will be tested. They aim at strengthening the self-reflection and self-compassion of young, healthy adults to evoke particular emotions as well as exposing biological systems through exposure to stress.

The results should show whether biological stress pattern reactions can be manipulated in a way that allows a reversal of the mechanism that triggers stress-related illnesses.