The Stanford Center on Stress and Health, under the direction of Dr. David Spiegel, is dedicated to studying how stress and support affect mind, brain, and body. We are fundamentally social creatures, and the social and physical environment can both cause and ameliorate stress. Our response to these forces is influenced by our genetic makeup, early life experiences, and our cognitive and emotional response to them. Effects of stress and support on our health are mediated by the central, peripheral and autonomic nervous systems, our hormonal stress response system, and the immune system. Once believed to be autonomously functioning systems, we now know that the nervous, endocrine and immune systems are integrally connected, with exquisitely sensitive communications and interactions. These continual fluctuations are not exclusively regulated from the bottom up by the internal molecular and cellular environment. Physical, environmental and psychosocial factors exert a profound downward influence as well on neuroendocrine and immune functioning. Acute stress can stimulate immune response, while chronic stress wears it down. These factors can have an effect on the body’s ability to fight disease. Social isolation is bad for your health, and depression predicts poorer outcome with cancer and heart disease. Our Center is devoted to understanding mechanisms associated with stress and health, and to developing and testing new treatments that mobilize psychosocial support and stress management to augment medical treatment.
Our Laboratory is studying psychophysiological effects of trauma, both early in life such as sexual and physical abuse, and later, such as that coming from natural disasters, assault, and combat exposure. We examine stress related to diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS, and study effects of group support and hypnosis as psychophysiological interventions. We attempt to link stress history, genetic vulnerability, resilience, coping, and social support, to disease outcome via examination of stress response systems in the brain and body. The disease itself is a stressor, as are the treatments and the resultant psychosocial changes. These stressors may lead to detrimental changes within the body, which can be minimized through psychosocial intervention. This is particularly important in the settings of illness and trauma, in which physical and psychosocial distress often respond well to intervention. These benefits may lead, in turn, to delayed disease progression and prolonged survival time, as well as improvement in quality of life.
In investigating the triad of emotional expression, social support and stress response in the settings of trauma and illness, the Psychosocial Treatment Laboratory strives to meet the following objectives:
- Foster a spirit of investigation, collaboration, achievement and mutual support.
- Understand the mechanisms by which psychological processes affect physiologic response.
- Develop and evaluate interventions designed to decrease adverse effects of illness and trauma.
- Improve doctor-patient communication leading to refined allocation and utilization of health care resources.
- Enhance resilience by detoxifying fears of illness, trauma and dying in order to preserve and improve relationships with self and others.
- Improve quality of life and hopefully prolong survival time for patients with life-altering illness or trauma.
- Investigate the special needs of selected populations for greater generalizability of results.
- Disseminate group intervention and self-hypnosis techniques through professional training, education and collaboration with our colleagues.
- Apply rigorous scientific method to complex problems of social environment/mind/brain and body.