Examining stress and human body

Ashley Darling and Jody Greaney pose in their respective headshots
Ashley Darling (left) and Jody Greaney

You’re stuck in traffic. You’ve spilled coffee on yourself. You’ve forgotten your phone at home.

These may seem like small annoyances by themselves. But the stress they can cause on the body has the potential to accumulate. A team of University of Texas at Arlington researchers is exploring how those day-to-day stresses of life may impact one’s health.

Ashley Darling, doctoral student and graduate research assistant at UTA’s Neurovascular Physiology Laboratory, under the supervision of Jody Greaney, assistant professor of kinesiology and lab director, is studying how daily stress can play a role in one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Daily stress is universally experienced. It’s part of life and elicits an emotional response. Typically, people get into a worse mood as a result of these daily stressors,” Darling said. “What we’ve seen is that a greater increase in negative mood is correlated with biological outcomes that may lead to an increased risk of future cardiovascular disease.”

Darling’s project is “The moderating influence of physical activity on the link between daily stress vulnerability and blood pressure reactivity.” It received grant funding from the American College of Sports Medicine Foundation.

Darling said stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which drives the body’s fight or flight response. With that activation comes an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. The blood pressure spike from that acute stress previously has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

But Darling says there is a way to fight back: by being active. She and her team are investigating whether physical activity can help lower the body’s reaction to acute stress, thereby decreasing the body’s disease risk.

“We are always interested in physical activity and sedentary time. It is such an accessible and very powerful intervention,” Darling said. “Trying to understand how public health initiatives could be created to promote exercise went into the decision to pursue this study.”

Participants will wear a small accelerometer on their hip for a week that will record their physical activity and sedentary time. They will also document their exposure to daily stress and their emotional response to that stress. On the study’s final day, participants will visit the lab and undergo exposure to acute laboratory-applied stressful tasks, like submerging their hand in a bucket of ice water, to see how their blood pressure levels react.

Darling said she is grateful for research experience at UTA and the mentorship of Greaney.

“I moved here from Virginia specifically for UTA and to work with Jody, just because I think the University really does offer a great amount of resources,” Darling said. “The department and the people whom I am able to work with give me a unique set of skills that I can’t really get from other places.”

Greaney said that Darling’s research approach is unique.

“Very few investigators are working at merging psychology and psychological-related outcomes with physiology,” Greaney said. “Ashley has done a really nice job of building a team of investigators that is going to help her be successful in completing this study.”

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