A woman standing at a podium providing her speech about stress management
Rajita Sinha, foundation fund endowed professor in psychiatry and professor of neuroscience in child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, led the 8th Foltyn Seminar to address impacts of prolonged stress. At least 70% of the population has faced one or more traumatic events in their lives.

Defense against chronic stress with Foltyn Seminar speaker Sinha

December 04, 2023 Written by Colin Heffinger | Photos by Kristen Troy

This fall’s Foltyn Seminar titled “What Stresses You? Stress Responses, Health Behaviors & Outcomes” brought together hundreds of students, staff, and faculty to delve into the extensive effects of stress and discuss healthy coping mechanisms.

Led by guest speaker Rajita Sinha, foundation fund endowed professor in psychiatry and professor of neuroscience in child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, the 8th Foltyn Seminar started off by addressing statistics regarding higher rates of trauma, stress, and substance misuse. Over the past 10 to 15 years, 70% of the population has faced at least one traumatic event, with 32% reporting four or more, and 43% reported having two or more adverse childhood experiences. Additionally, stress-related anxiety and PTSD have been on the rise with binge drinking, cannabis use, and opioid overdoses.

Sinha explained how stress is essential for adaptation and survival. A stress response generally provides increased energy, focused attention, and improvements to performance and memory. The issue is that uncontrolled prolonged stress leads to both mental health and chronic disease risks such as anxiety disorders, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and dementia, even well after the stress event has passed.

“Each person is different in exactly how their body reacts to sustained stress,” said Sinha. “Most will experience a variety of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms. All these reactions can have a negative impact on relationships, memory, behaviors, and more through excessive damage to brain functioning.”

Younger adults from 18-34 have reported more intense effects of stress than any other age group. At least 55% stated their stress is debilitating and overwhelming. As high as 71% stated their stress makes focus challenging, which can limit their ability to complete tasks across work, home life, and maintaining relationships.

A group of students, faculty, and staff in attendance of a recent large seminar
Over 300 students, faculty, and staff attended this fall's Foltyn Seminar aimed to clarify symptoms of chronic stress and healthy coping mechanisms. Younger adults aged 18-34 report more intense effects of stress over any other age group, with as high as 71% stating their stress makes it hard to focus, and 55% reporting it as debilitating in their daily lives.

Sinha’s research further explored the effects of stress by analyzing brain scans and cortisol levels in a study to determine “neuroflexibility” patterns in the prefrontal cortex when participants were exposed to either stress-inducing or neutral photos for six seconds each. The results concluded that dynamic changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain indicate resilient coping efforts to combat stress, while no change during stress signified vulnerability to risky, unhealthy coping strategies.

“Parts of the brain used for learning and adapting are also on the same pathway as our stress response, and are stimulated by our internal reward system,” said Sinha. “A dysregulated response caused by chronic stress can contribute to addictive use of our reward system in unhealthy ways through alcohol intake, overeating, and engagement with use of other drugs.”

Sinha completed her presentation by highlighting effective strategies to better handle stress and build resilient coping.

“Stress and trauma impact is the elephant in the room not being addressed,” said Sinha. “We have to stop ignoring the body and brain’s natural alarm system to ask ourselves – can we harness stress science to promote positive health behaviors and prevent chronic disease risk, course, and severity?”

“It’s important to engage in activities that provide social and emotional support,” explained Sinha. “Having a positive attitude, creating an enriching environment, and stimulating different parts of your brain through art, music, writing, and physical activity can make the biggest difference. Engaging in mindfulness can even help reverse existing negative effects of stress.”

A group of professsionals posing for a photo inside the College of Health Sciences campus building
From left to right: Buz Swanik, Jillian Trabulsi, Rajita Sinha, Kathi Foltyn, and Ted Foltyn. The Foltyn Seminars are funded by the generosity of Ted and Kathi Foltyn with a focus on confronting topics such as behavioral health, nutrition, wellness, and disease prevention.

The Foltyn Seminars have been supported through the generosity of Ted Foltyn and Kathi Hetrick Foltyn since their spark in February of 2013. Each seminar confronts a different topic revolving around behavioral health, wellness, nutrition, and disease prevention including an inspirational presentation from an expert in the field.

In reflection of this fall’s seminar, Kathi Foltyn highlighted how “stress overloads the prefrontal cortex and takes it offline” to halt effective problem solving. “Understanding this physiologic impact may empower us to take positive action as opposed to sinking further into chronic anxiety, depression, or feelings of helplessness. This understanding can give people the confidence to practice and sustain positive behaviors.”

“Dr. Sinha’s work not only contributes to a healthy society, but also helps to promote self-efficacy,” continued Kathi Foltyn. “We hope that attendees visit Dr. Sinha’s website and will look further into her work.”

Over 300 students joined the seminar from classes across psychology, health behavior and nutrition sciences, and other majors throughout the University. The Foltyns emphasized how students have a breadth of resources available to help cope with stress at UD, including the Wellbeing Center at Warner Hall.

“We are very pleased to see such a strong response to our recent lectures,” said Ted Foltyn. “These topics have been widely acknowledged as relevant to many faculty, students, and local health professionals. We hope those in attendance use these talks as inspiration for taking care in their own lives as well as continued research in this area.”

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