News items Erno Hermans receives NWO Vici grant for research on increasing stress resilience
18 March 2022

Erno Hermans, researcher at Donders Institute and Radboud University Medical Center, receives a Vici grant of 1.5 million euros. With this grant, he will investigate how stress resilience is created and how it can be increased. This knowledge should lead to the development of a training programme on the prevention of stress-related complaints and disorders.

Although health problems related to stress are common, most people are resilient to stress. Some people also become mentally stronger after stressful life events. Erno Hermans, cognitive neuroscientist at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, wants to find out how people build such resilience. How does our brain change after stress? How do resilient people differ from vulnerable people? Can we predict who will emerge stronger from stressful situations?

'We often have difficulty treating health problems related to stress, such as burnout', Hermans explains. ‘That is why we are shifting from therapy development and treating symptoms, to preventing people from developing complaints. This requires fundamental knowledge about how we can increase stress resilience. I want to know how resilience arises and how we can strengthen it.'

Control

With his Vici grant, Hermans will look at the mechanisms underlying the positive effects of stress. Hermans: 'People often think that stress only has negative effects. But if you are exposed to stress and you can deal with it properly, then your brain learns from the situation. Especially when you learn that certain situations can be controlled. This will enable you to better deal with future stressors. You are then less susceptible to stress and have a smaller chance of complaints.'

Control seems to be crucial in stress complaints. ‘Often such problems arise because people underestimate how much control they can exercise. They then respond too reactively. Or people proactively try to control everything, while this yields nothing. Both situations can lead to complaints', says Hermans. ‘We want to optimize this reaction. That is a learning process. We want to better control the stress response and train people to recognize when a situation is controllable or not.'

Brain activity

To do this, Hermans is starting experiments in the laboratory. He is using functional MRI to look at the brain activity of research participants while choosing between proactive and reactive strategies. For example, participants must choose whether they want to invest mental effort to exert control in a stressful task. Using pharmacological manipulations, he is also looking at the role of different neurotransmitters released under stress. In this way, he tries to unravel the learning process of dealing with stress.

The next step consists of measurements in the real world. Hermans uses a dataset from the Healthy Brain Study. Hermans: ‘In this study we follow a thousand people for a year. We measure how people react physiologically to stressors in everyday life with wearables, such as smartwatches. What do they experience and how does that change their mental health? We measure how stress reactions change over time and how people develop resilience.' 

Based on the measurements in the lab and in the real world, Hermans wants to develop a training programme for enhancing stress resilience. The training programme is based on neurofeedback, a method in which people receive live feedback on their own brain activity. Hermans: 'During the training, we teach people how to use their brains more proactively or reactively. We want people to adapt better to the controllability of the environment. In this way, we can prevent stress symptoms rather than cure them.'

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