Stress in Context

Stress is probably one of the most abused and misunderstood terms in our language. It bears a negative connotation, which is only half-true. Stress’s generic definition in the Webster’s dictionary is as follows: `A physical, chemical, or emotional factor to which a individual fails to make a satisfactory adaptation.'

In reality, stress is an ever present physiological mechanism that redirects physiological resources where mostly needed. It achieves this through coordination of central (autonomic brain center) and peripheral neurophysiology.

Since stress is the mechanism that help us cope with environmental challenges, it is fundamental to our existence. Furthermore, it defines our behavior and performance in a number of activities ranging from learning a new skill to reacting to danger. Too little stress in the nick of time and we are destined to fail; too much stress for too long and we are destined to suffer (and fail). To better understand stress, we need to measure it. There is fundamental difficulty in measuring as unobtrusively as possible, something that is ever present and in continuous flux. Remember, stress by definition reacts to obtrusions. Thus, a stress measurement obtained through obtrusive means, will be biased.

Beyond the motivation of understanding a basic aspect of humanness, which stress is, there are also practical reasons. There is incentive in understanding stress derailment, which may lead to serious pathology. There is also incentive in understanding the role of stress in work and educational performance as well as in suspect screening. In all these cases, deeper understanding is the first step towards amelioration, and measurement is the key.

We study stress as a continuum and not piecemeal. Stress is encoded in our genes, it is realized physiologically when we come into being and subsequently manifested in outward behavior. The phenotypical evolution of stress physiology and behavior is affected not only by genes but also the intensity and duration of environmental stimuli. We focus on a new way of studying stress phenotypes - that of facial screening.