Prof. Stacey Doan to deliver presentation on childhood stress at international conference in Spain

Claremont McKenna College Assistant Professor of Psychology Stacey Doan will deliver a presentation at the American Psychosomatic Society’s 75th annual meeting to be held March 15-18 in Sevilla, Spain.

Professor Doan’s presentation (“Aggression and Chronic Physiological Stress: Externalizing Behaviors Buffers the Effect of Early Life Adversity on Allostatic Load”) tests a counter-intuitive hypothesis: Externalizing behaviors such as aggression and conduct problems serve an important purpose — they are an effective form of stress regulation for children growing up in the context of poverty.

According to Doan, the accepted assumption has always been that poverty disrupts normative development leading to these maladaptive behaviors. However, evolutionary psychology models suggest that these behaviors may be adaptive.

“We demonstrate in the paper that externalizing behaviors serve an important function, specifically, they reduce the levels of chronic physiological stress on the body for children growing up in adverse contexts,” she says. “In other words, while exposure to risk factors such as poverty, family conflict, and environmental pollution takes a toll on the body, leading to higher allostatic load — an indicator of chronic physiological stress — the relationship is attenuated for children who have high levels of externalizing behaviors. Aggression, acting out, seems to buffer the effects of chronic exposure to stress on physical health.”

According to Doan, adolescents are often punished for these types of behaviors (e.g., acting out, getting into fights), but this presumes that these behaviors serve no important function, are disruptive, and thus need to be minimized. “Our work shows that for adolescents growing up in a high-risk context, these behaviors reduce stress on the body; are protective,” she says. “Thus, the goals of parents and educators are simply not to reduce these types of behaviors, but to equip teenagers with effective stress-coping skills.”

Doan says the study (in which she collaborated with Dr. Gary W. Evans from Cornell) was started when the adolescents were 9 years of age; they are about 24 now. The researchers used data from when they were from 9 to 17 years old.

“I am very interested in counter-intuitive ideas that, when looked at from a different angle, make perfect sense,” Doan says. “One of my core research interests is to think about how social experiences get ‘underneath the skin,’ so to speak, to influence health and well-being. Of late, I have been studying how the social environment shapes emotional experiences. As a culture, we highly emphasize happiness and positive emotions and often try to suppress or minimize our experience of negative emotions. I want to challenge this idea and to encourage thinking about the diversity of human emotional experience and the important functions that these emotional experiences serve.”

Doan earned a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College in Minnesota, and a doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University. She taught at Boston University before coming to CMC in the fall of 2015.

The American Psychosomatic Society’s mission is to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral, and social factors in health and disease.

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