Ep 139 – Stress: The Elephant in the Room with Dr. George Slavich

Ep 139 – Stress: The Elephant in the Room with Dr. George Slavich

So, the cool thing about psychoneuroimmunology is that we get to look at basically how our experience of the world gets represented by our brain and how our brain influences our immune system, and also how our immune system influences our brain in our experience of the world, which anybody who has ever been sick knows that we feel and think very differently when we’re sick than when we’re not sick.  So, long story short, we have been applying this perspective of psychoneuroimmunology to try to understand the different types of stress that people experience, how it influences our brain, and how our brain influences our immune system, and ultimately our health. - Dr. George Slavich


Dr. George Slavich is a leading expert in the conceptualization, assessment, and management of life stress and it's relationship to poor health. He is the founding Director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at UCLA whose goal is "to advance the science of stress and health to help prevent disease and improve human health and resilience worldwide."

Since beginning his career as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Slavich has been researching the relationship between stress and health for over 20 years.  His area of focus is psychoneuroimmunology, which studies the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease. By integrating tools from psychology, neuroscience, immunology, biology, genetics, and genomics, Dr. Slavich’s research has provided new insights into the inflammatory response to social stress and helped to pioneer a new field of research called human social genomics. He has also developed the first online system for measuring lifetime stress exposure called the Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN), and proposed a new theory called the Social Safety Theory, which hypothesizes that developing and maintaining friendly social bonds is a fundamental organizing principle of human behavior and that threats to social safety are a critical feature of psychological stressors that increase risk for disease

Dr. Slavich completed undergraduate and graduate coursework in psychology and communication at Stanford University, and received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Oregon. After graduate school, he was a clinical psychology intern at McLean Hospital in Boston and a clinical fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He subsequently completed three years of NIMH-supported postdoctoral training in psychoneuroimmunology at UCSF and UCLA. He is presently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, a Research Scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, and the Founding Director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research. His research has been covered by many media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Scientific American, TIME Magazine, HBO, NPR, U.S. News & World Report, and others.

In this episode, we talk about the science behind how stress impacts our body down to the level of gene expression and immune system activation, what type of stressors seem to have the biggest impact on our health, some of the things we can do to mitigate the negative impact of stress, and how measuring stress may improve our ability to address it on a large scale. We also talked about how Dr. Slavich's work provides insight into the current coronavirus pandemic including the impact of stress on chronic systemic inflammation, why we should be practicing physical distancing instead of social distancing, and how best to communicate with others during this time to preserve the protective effects of social bonds on our health.

Bio adapted from uclastresslab.org

In this episode we discuss:

  • How Dr. Slavich got into the field of stress research and what motivates him
  • Psychoneuroimmunology: what it is, and how it can be used to study health
  • What happens in our body when we are exposed to an external stressor
  • Which types of stressors most negatively impact health
  • Social Safety Theory
  • Social genomics
  • Physical distancing vs. social distancing
  • Whether connecting via technology can have the same impact as connecting in person
  • The impact of stress on our biology relative to other lifestyle factors, and what we can do to influence our stress response and reduce chronic inflammation
  • Tools for reducing the impact of stress on the body: mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Quantifying and measuring stress
  • Three things Dr. Slavich does on a regular basis that have the biggest positive impact on his health
  • One thing he thinks could have a big impact on his health but he has a hard time implementing
  • What a healthy life looks like to Dr. Slavich


Related episodes:

Ep 105 - Sleep, Stress and Brain Health with Dr. Nate Bergman

Ep 116 - How Healing Works with Dr. Wayne Jonas

Ep 135 - Immune System Strength with Dr. Leonard Calabrese

Ep 138 - Pursuing Health Pearls: Our 10 Favorite Ways to Combat Stress and Anxiety

If you like this episode, please subscribe to Pursuing Health on iTunes and give it a rating. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below and on social media using the hashtag #PursuingHealth. I look forward to bringing you future episodes with inspiring individuals and ideas about health every other Tuesday.

Disclaimer: This podcast is for general information only, and does not provide medical advice. We recommend that you seek assistance from your personal physician for any health conditions or concerns.

This post was originally published on April 14, 2020.

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