Psychological Science Professor Patricia Smiley Receives NSF Grant to Study Stress Response to the Pandemic

illustration of family during coronavirus

Professor of Psychological Science Patricia Smiley has received a $164,138 research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the changes in stress response in adults and children brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The one-year study titled “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Changes in the Stress Response: Identifying Risk and Resilience in Adults and Children” is a collaboration with Professors Stacey Doan of Claremont McKenna College and Cindy Liu of Harvard Medical School. The researchers will focus on acute and chronic stress, the transmission of stress between caregivers and their children, and risk and resilience factors associated with exacerbating or reducing stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to emergencies worldwide, causing heightened levels of stress and anxiety that affect individuals across all demographics. In the U.S. alone, there are more than a million of confirmed cases linked to the virus and the economic halt has led to record-high unemployment.

According to the researchers, the pandemic has caused major life stressors as well as daily difficulties, including lack of childcare, uncertain job security or increased work expectations, and the effects of social distancing, in addition to the possibility of health issues related to COVID-19.

Prospective studies examining the effects of a pandemic on psychological and physiological functioning in U.S. families are nonexistent. The research team will capitalize on their ongoing longitudinal study of stress and adaptation of 150 families with young children in Los Angeles County. The group had been studying the psychological health of caregivers and their children ages 3 to 4 years old through questionnaires, lab visits that simulated stressful conditions and measuring their cortisol levels produced by stress in saliva and hair samples. 

“The pandemic will allow us to address fundamental questions about the effects of chronic stress that we would not otherwise be able to answer,” says Smiley. “Uncertainty is something our brains dislike and that’s when we see increased cortisol production, a stress hormone, in our study participants. In our original study, we saw heightened cortisol levels in those participants who are not able to quickly adapt to stressful situations, so in the time of the current pandemic, they may be more susceptible to chronic stressors, showing higher cortisol levels and poorer psychological health.”

Through this study, the researchers will investigate the extent to which a pandemic predicts change in caregivers’ and children’s physiological and psychological functioning. They will also examine whether the experiences of physiological stress coincide within caregiver-child pairs and connections to developmental outcomes. Finally, they will test competing theories of risk and resilience factors within the caregiver and child.

Among the strategies to be utilized in the remote application of this study, the researchers will use an app to record a conversation about the pandemic to explore how caregivers educate their children about emotional experiences. In order to measure chronic cortisol levels, participants will mail in hair samples to be processed.

The overall budget of the study will fund research assistants, laboratory and other research expenses as well as payments for study participants.