By Páraic Ó Súilleabháin
The conference was the 36th Stress and Anxiety Research Society (STAR) annual conference which was held this year in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to the conference I travelled to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv to do some
sightseeing of the main religious sites such as the Western Wall. On the way to the Wall, I passed through a maze of streets in the old city of Jerusalem. These streets were a welcomed rest from the blistering heat. The Western Wall itself which surrounds the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. Hundreds of people attend in prayer every day. I found it fascinating watching people interact with one another, and especially while in prayer there.
Attending the conference was an excellent opportunity to view one of the most historically rich places in the world. Having heard and learnt about many of the places during my childhood in a catholic national school in rural Ireland, it was fascinating to pass places like Bethlehem and the Garden of Gethsemane. While I am not religious anymore, I certainly appreciated the history, beauty and relevance of these sites.
The conference itself was held in Tel Aviv University. The current president of STAR is Prof. Brian Hughes from the School of Psychology at NUIG. I was quite surprised at the size of the conference with hundreds of attendees with presenters from approximately 40 international universities. One of the aspects I enjoyed the most about the conference was while it was in my broad area of stress research, topics covered ranged widely from the joys and struggles with welcoming a new baby into the family to coping, resilience and trauma in conflict zones. It was very interesting listening to various other researchers speaking about stress research in such diverse ways.
Fellow School of Psychology PhD candidate Amanda Sesker also attended. Amanda presented on cardiovascular reactivity and the role of conscientiousness in recurrent stress exposures in female university students; a report on her initial findings for study 1 of her PhD. This was her first international conference and she reported it as being a unique opportunity; not only by visiting a different continent but also meeting many of the esteemed researchers involved in stress and anxiety research. Her presentation and work was very well received by the attendees.
Having surprisingly quickly acclimatised to the heat (I am designed for artic conditions!), I was looking forward to present on the opening day of the conference. I presented the first completed study of my PhD titled openness to experience and cardiovascular stress responsivity which is currently being submitted for publication. In recent years, research has reported that this personality trait has a large effect on mortality, with an even greater impact than common mortality risk factors such as socio-economic status and alcohol consumption. More recently, openness to experience has been found to impact the onset of a variety of cardiovascular health associations, such that a one unit increase in openness to experience decreases the onset of stroke by 31%, high blood pressure by 29%, and a host of other conditions by 17%. While the exact underlying biological mechanisms remain unclear, my PhD revolves around attempting to shed some light on why this may be happening.
Presenting at the conference was an amazing opportunity for me. Many of my peers and people I greatly admire attended my presentation from various international universities. Apparently they didn’t attend specifically to hear my presentation! While it was slightly nerve wrecking presenting to begin with, I assured myself I was correctly responding to the stressor with habituation to hopefully follow (see what I did there!!).
Attending the conference would not have been possible without travel bursaries from the School of Psychology, the Centre for Research on Occupational and Life Stress, and the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Celtic Studies. I am extremely grateful for their assistance and support.
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