By Amy Welch
This summer, with VGN support, I traveled to Zagreb (Croatia) to present a paper at the Stress and Anxiety Research (STAR) Society Annual Meeting. The trip was a great success and involved a number of firsts for me: my first time attending a ‘STAR’ conference, my first trip to Croatia, and my first time presenting at an international conference with undergraduate students as co-authors. The conference was hosted by the University of Zagreb, the oldest and biggest university in South-Eastern Europe with 75,000 students! My immediate reaction upon arrival was that the City is modern, vibrant, and boasts some beautiful architecture. However, there were also pockets of evidence that the country is still recovering from war, 20 years on. I also noticed a prevalence of war-related references and topics throughout the conference, which points to the widespread and long-lasting impact of war on the psychological health.
My presentation, titled “Randomized Controlled Trial of Exercise and Biofeedback Interventions in Highly Stressed Adults: Preliminary Findings of Psychological Effects”, detailed some early findings from my VGN-funded research program. The project involved comparison of a 4-week aerobic exercise intervention to a 4-week biofeedback-assisted diaphragmatic-breathing intervention in adults with high stress levels. We sought to identify whether these two markedly different stress-management strategies, one active and one passive, differed in psychological, physiological and behavioral markers of effectiveness. The results showed that both 4-week interventions were effective at improving psychological health of the stressed adults that completed them. However, some differences were evident: the breathing intervention seemed to be slightly more effective for improving negative variables (stress & depression), whereas only exercise improved the positive psychological variable (life satisfaction). This pattern corroborated the differences in psychological effects we found in an acute intervention study we recently published (Meier & Welch, 2016), in which a 10 minute self-paced exercise bout increased feelings of ‘energy’ (a positive emotional state characterized by high arousal), and a 10 minute of diaphragmatic breathing with biofeedback increased calmness. In that study, both strategies reduced state anxiety, with a slightly larger effect seen for the breathing protocol. It appears these strategies can have similar effects in both the short and long-term.
My undergraduate coauthors, Emily Sokolowski and Melissa Rixon were fundamental in getting this project started, and their input on research design (particularly protocol development and pilot-testing) helped to shape the nature of the interventions. However, it’s imperative that I acknowledge the significant input from all the excellent students that have worked with me as VGN-funded research assistants in the Behavioral Medicine Lab over the last 3 years. They all worked hard to maintain a strict schedule of recruitment, data collection and effective intervention delivery. This time-consuming study would undoubtedly never have seen the light of day without them!