February 27, 2023 - Podcast

Episode 348 — Outsmarting stress

New Indiana University research will focus on when, where and why people get stressed in Indianapolis, and it will measure it all in real-time.

The study, a collaboration between the School of Public Health-Bloomington and the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, will use an app to figure out exactly when and where midlife adults, age 50 to 64, feel stressed in their daily lives.

The goal is to reduce stress by understanding more about where it comes from. Data will be collected over time about the places and things that add the most stress to each day.

Researchers want to know what factors are either enhancing or inhibiting healthy aging. Evan Jordan, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Wellness Design, says researchers know stress is a big contributor to cardiovascular problems, heart disease, and cognitive decline — things that are often exacerbated by age. He says that if they can identify the places in a person’s environment that are creating stress for large groups of people, they can then work to eliminate those environmental stressors that are affecting many people at a time.

This approach is called ecological momentary assessment. In addition to the app, researchers will have participants wear a smart watch to track their heart rate and physical activity.

This is a new way of measuring stress, says Jordan. Other studies on stress happen in labs, where they give people a stress-inducing activity and study their reactions or conduct surveys about stressors. Jordan says their research uses an app built by an IU researcher to get real-time data. In the moment, participants will be able to mark down exactly when and where they feel stressed.

The app is built by Patrick C. Shih, assistant professor of informatics in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at IU Bloomington. It is one of multiple similar studies that the IU researchers are working on together. Another study will soon use a similar app to measure and reduce stress in breast cancer survivors.

Shih says they have been developing ecological momentary assessment technologies to support a variety of populations with chronic health needs using their interdisciplinary team. He says this research is truly innovative, and they hope to make great advances in this area.

No one has collected this 'where and when' data before, says Jordan. There are many different stressors related to major life events: COVID, respiratory illnesses, inflation, the Ukraine war. But there also are daily stressors, like traffic on the way to work, money or relationship stress.

Jordan and his team want to understand how people’s environment plays a role in where and when those stressors are experienced. Once they know that, they can start to eliminate environmental stressors by working with community planners or determining effective coping strategies for stressors that cannot be avoided.