Getting stressed out at the Lancashire Science Festival


By Rachel Boardman, University of Nottingham, UK, @boardventures

Two weeks ago, I formed part of The Physiological Society’s team of enthusiastic volunteers in the Biology Big Top area of Lancashire Science Festival. Dressed to impress in our ‘I love physiology’ t-shirts, we were all set to engage our audience about the effects of stress on the body.

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After measuring a participant’s blood pressure and heart rate we would then expose them to either a mental or physical stress. The mental stress consisted of playing whack-a-mole – a version of the popular arcade game where you hit the mole when it lights up – while being asked maths questions. Evil, right?

I had a go, to errm test it out, and one of my fellow volunteers challenged me to count backwards from 100. Not so bad, I thought. She then added, “In 7s.”

“Oh errm.. 100, 93… errr…86. Yeah I’m out.”

A few of our participants were amazingly good at this (unlike me) while some heard the word maths and immediately opted for the physical stressor, the cold pressor test.IMG_2518

This involved sticking your hand in an ice-cold bucket of water for 1 minute (we toned it down to 30 seconds for the younger children because we’re not harsh). The shock on each participant’s face as they realised how cold the water actually was followed by the realisation that a whole 60 seconds doing this was far longer than they had realised. Most showed clear signs of discomfort, squirming and fidgeting in their seat, increasing their breathing rate and even providing a running commentary on just how they were feeling, but there were others that sat quite still with a wry smile on their face that said ‘this isn’t that cold’.

Once we had suitably stressed our victims participants out, we measured their blood pressure and heart rate again. What would you expect to happen?DEcsbysXUAAdU07.jpg

Well, if you know anything about science, then you will know that it doesn’t always go to plan. That is precisely what happened to us. The majority of people’s blood pressure and heart rate did increase. However, we also had participants who seemingly reacted to these stressors by relaxing, or for whom only blood pressure or heart rate changed. That’s science, guys!

Read Rachel’s full article on her blog, The Boardventures.

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