Much of what influences health is not determined by genetics or exposure to pathogens, but instead by a combination of biological, psychological, and social influences. I am passionate about discovering ways in which emotions, stress, personality, and society influence our health—and the neuroendocrine and immune pathways that connect psychosocial factors to health outcomes.
My research investigates biopsychosocial associations among stress, emotions, and health in healthy adults as well as in people with chronic conditions such as HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, asthma, allergies, and hypertension. Specific areas I study include individual differences in immune responses to brief laboratory stress, sympathetic nervous system influences on stress-induced immune alterations, the role of anger expression and cardiovascular reactivity on serum lipid concentrations, coping style influences on cardiovascular disease risk, mechanisms of cholesterol elevations during stress, the effects of perceived discrimination on mental and physical health outcomes among Mexican Americans, biopsychosocial predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder following a car crash, and immune and hormonal responses to laboratory stress in women with rheumatoid arthritis.
Currently, I am exploring the prevalence of lifetime depressive and anxiety disorders in women with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and biologic and psychosocial predictors of health outcomes in this disease. Findings show that the prevalence of lifetime psychiatric disorders is elevated in this group and suggest novel immune contributions to certain mental disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and OCD. Additionally, exposure to childhood adversity (e.g., abuse, parental loss, financial difficulties) is a strong predictor of several mental and physical health outcomes in adult SLE. This study will also examine gene-environment interactions incorporating five genes (24 single nucleotide polymorphisms) that may be important to inflammatory processes in SLE, stress, and mood.
The lab is also conducting a multi-year survey research project investigating health and well-being in young adults and nearly 800 participants have completed the survey. In one aspect of this project, students and I are exploring the health effects of chronic social anxiety (shyness and social phobia) in both laboratory and naturalistic settings. Results to date suggest that adults who are highly shy may be nearly twice as likely as non-shy adults to have certain immune related conditions, including asthma. Other findings indicate that high shyness may contribute to depressed mood and lower self-esteem, but only when accompanied by social phobia. The lab is currently running a study to compare the constructs of shyness and social phobia across a number of psychosocial domains, as well as their links to a biomarker of inflammation, functioning of the HPA-axis (cortisol awakening response), and long-term cortisol production (hair cortisol). The lab has also completed a study examining cortisol and immune responses to acute laboratory stress in socially anxious adults. In one thesis project, Oona Kelly found that socially anxious college students who experience concomitant panic attacks are more likely than students without social anxiety to use a variety of licit and illicit substances, but that social anxiety alone was protective against such use. Two other students are currently exploring the effects of early life adversity and the role of siblings and other important social relationships as protective factors on health and social competence across the lifespan.
In addition to the above projects, the lab is also researching the effects of transphobia as a form of chronic stress on the health and well-being or individuals who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming. While there are more studies examining emotional health outcomes in transgender individuals, few studies have examined physical health outcomes. This study is also unique in that it includes cisgender individuals for the comparison of levels and types of discrimination and health outcomes. Participants are being recruited through Amazon M-Turk and LGBTQ centers in cities across the nation.