We all know the feeling. There’s a looming deadline, an upcoming exam, or a big presentation. Try as you might, there never seems to be enough hours in the day to get everything done. Day after day the problem intensifies, and over time the stress starts to take a physical toll on the body as a risk factor for heart disease, depression, sleep disorders, and even obesity. One simple way to combat stress is through physical activity. Just 30 minutes of daily activity can greatly improve your condition and improve your resistance to stress compared to people who aren’t physically active. But when you’re stressed and overwhelmed, the last thing you want to do is “give up” 30 minutes for exercise when you could spend it working through your long to-do list. So how can stressed out people be convinced to exercise? That’s the question that sparked Caroline Eklund’s PhD research.
Before starting her PhD in health and welfare at Mälardalen University, Caroline worked a physiotherapist. The common refrain from her patients was that they felt too much pressure and stress to make time to perform their prescribed exercises. To figure out how to motivate her patients to manage their stress, Caroline started a PhD under the supervision of Dr. Anne Söderlund, Dr. Yvonne Eriksson, and Dr. Magnus Elfström. Dr. Söderlund is a professor of physiotherapy, Dr. Eriksson is a professor of information design, and Dr. Elfström is an associate professor in psychology. and their different fields of expertise both influenced the novel, creative approach Caroline took to her research. Using the latest research from multiple fields, Caroline has developed a customised and interactive web-app to help people manage their stress.
The app uses the “ABC model”, a commonly used cognitive behavioural therapy technique, to help people identify the causes and effects of their stress. In the case of Caroline’s research, A is the stressor which leads to B, the mental or physical behaviour associated with the stress, which leads to C, the consequence of the stress (such as back pain or trouble sleeping). The app’s evidence-based approach helps people make the link between their stress and the physical problems they experience as a result of it. It also suggests different techniques such as physical activity, identifying negative thinking, or relaxation exercises to help the users cope with their stress. The idea is that the app will encourage people to manage their stress by swapping their negative behaviours for positive ones.
The app has been continuously evolving over Caroline’s PhD based on the research that she collects. There are several techniques she uses to gather her data. Some days she interviews people to make the app more user-friendly. Other days she assembles the next research group to try the app. Although she’s already spent two years working on the app, her desire to dig deeper and find answers propels her to keep improving it.
Caroline’s app has the potential to make a big impact. In 2015, over 50% of work-related illnesses in Sweden were related to stress, making it the number one reason people take time off from work. According to Caroline, one-fourth of the European population is now at risk for stress-related illnesses. High levels of stress can cause dangerous damage to the brain, which is why is why research into stress management techniques—such as Caroline’s app—is so vital.
Helping people handle their stress is Caroline’s way to change the world for the better and people are already starting to take notice. Her research has generated a lot of media attention in the past year following new Swedish regulations to improve working conditions and workers’ mental health. Caroline has even shared her research at international conferences in Singapore and London, something that she would have never had the opportunity to do as a physiotherapist.
Caroline’s background gave her first-hand insight into the prevalence of stress in our modern world and instilled in her the drive to find answers that will make real change. “Scientists come with completely different backgrounds, both from the academic world and from the working world,” she says. “There is a uniting sense that we all have the willpower to understand the world and to change it in the best way that we can.” Although she doesn’t think she can save the world (her words, not ours), she says she’ll settle for helping “100 people”. Seeing how pervasive stress is in our modern world, it’s probably safe to say her research will have a wider impact than that, especially if she brings her app to clinical practice or the App Store. Until that day comes, the next time you find yourself stressed out and overwhelmed remember Caroline’s advice: get some exercise!