Blog series #9: Stress resilience during the pandemic

Dr. Sarah Ayash is a postdoc at Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research – LIR and investigates stress resilience. In part nine of our blog interview series, she explains how we can positively influence our own resilience.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Sarah Ayash
LIR – Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, Mainz
Area: Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Resilience
Leibniz Section C

Research topic:
Stress Resilience

Main featured instrument or technique (for this specific COVID study):
Cross-sectional online survey conducted in 24 languages during the most intense phase of the lockdown in Europe (March 22nd to April 19th 2020) in a convenience sample of N=15,970 adults

I investigate stress resilience promoting factors during the pandemic and ways to positively employ the stress induced by the crisis to increase one’s resilience, a phenomenon known as “stress inoculation”.

With a biology background, what was your biggest motivation to get involved with psychology and eventually resilience research?

My curiosity about the brain drove me into neuroscience. Given my admiration of Avicenna from an early age, I personally consider a biological approach to questions in psychology a necessity for a better understanding. Here, the approach has been largely disease-oriented. What attracts me in resilience research is that it is a health-oriented approach. The health state is the fascinating observation. If we understand this state, there is a huge potential not only to be able treat the disease one but also develop prevention approaches.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Establishing ecologically valid and translationally relevant mouse models to study stress resilience mechanisms.

What are the main findings of your work; and did the results surprise you?

During COVID, I was involved in a large study that aimed to gain mechanistic insights about the relationship between specific psycho-social resilience factors and resilience specifically in the crisis. In comparison with other resilience factors, good stress response recovery and positive appraisal specifically of the consequences of the crisis were the strongest factors. Results were in line with our expectations*.

How has COVID affected your life?

It created me an opportunity to communicate, and thus bridge my research, to the public. Specifically, I felt there was a huge interest from the side of the public in stress resilience research as a result of the lockdown measures. I was invited at an unprecedented rate to interviews to talk about mental health during the lockdown. Overall, the experience made me appreciate the importance of communicating science and engaging in conversations related to my research with the public.

Does the COVID situation in your home country influence your research?

Yes it did but in an indirect way. Specifically, I became engaged in translating findings and research material related to mental health as well as online surveys of my institute – specifically intended to study resilience during the crisis- to the language of my region to gain insights and provide information on mental health to that part of the world as well.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

Observe what is happening around you and think of ways you can bridge your work to it. Sometimes including or changing few elements is sufficient to achieve this. As a scientist I believe you should not work in a bubble detached from your surrounding.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Stress resilience is the norm. We have the needed capacity to adapt to adversity and endure it even when we think otherwise.

What measures can one take to increase his/her stress resilience during adversity (including that of the pandemic)?

Perceive the situation as challenging rather than threatening. Facilitate a positive perception of the consequences and seek social support.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

It starts with a slow breakfast at a lively cafe while enjoying the week’s print of “The Economist” followed by a long stroll around the city, a visit to a museum or a gallery, and finally it ends with watching a good movie with friends and family.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Sarah Ayash for supporting our blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Sarah Ayash and her work:

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