Our lives are a composed of ever-alternating roles of scientists, engineers, and lab rats.
Throughout our week, we study the volcano, build and model items, capture footage of the area, maintain the hab systems, and more.
In addition, we provide researchers with a lot of data about ourselves.
One specific area of interest is stress and stress management research.
Most people have their own metric for this already, such as the amount of expletives you use in a day, pounds of ice cream eaten in an afternoon, or how often you forget where your keys are.
However, this won’t suffice for researchers who are looking to utilize their PhD.’s, using big words such as ‘neurohormonal regulation’, and ‘facts’.
Instead, these researchers have figured out some clever ways to measure biological responses in stress which may tell the story regardless what you write on a survey.
These techniques involve getting haircuts and spitting into tubes.
Let me explain.
Stress and Cortisol
We’ll start with an example.
Let’s say it’s a lazy Sunday morning. You’ve gotten out of bed, kissed your significant other, and are now holding a warm cup of coffee. Despite the snowfall outside, it’s the weekend so you stare outside the large window of your nicely warmed home as the snowflakes pile up, creating a pristine sea of white.
Life is good.
Then, without regard for your peaceful moment, the phone starts ringing. Your careful stride pulls you towards it, as you think of all the good that could happen. Perhaps It’s an old friend, calling to catch up on life. As you approach, the caller ID becomes clear.
It’s your mother.
A feeling of worry and panic begin to well up inside.
Your incredible brain, capable of seemingly infinite memory and imagination pieces the awkward, uncomfortable drawn-out conversation that’s about to come.
This same brain, the one that was evolved and adapted on the Serengeti, is now devoid of stimuli from ravenous lions sneaking among the grass for a two-legged meal, or venomous vipers diving from treetops. Instead, it’s met with the true fears our modern civilized society.
Fears such as tax season, waiting in line at the grocery store, or needing to go number 2 while stuck in traffic.
Come to think of it, that last one seems pretty on-par with getting chased by a lion.
You take a deep breath before picking up the phone. Without even a hello, a high-pitched voice on the other line continues a conversation that never started, “..And you never call!”
Cortisol, a hormone that activates anti-stress pathways to utilize energy and prevent inflammation through effecting the immune system, is released.
“RUN!”, your internal systems demand. “RUUUUUUN!!!”
We can’t run from this, you try and tell it. These systems are outdated.
More and more begins to build as conversations arise of things you did wrong 10 or 20 years ago and you receive unsolicited statements such as, “I’m never going to be a grandmother.”
Assuming you survive this encounter, you will have had some increase in cortisol levels.
Scientists, or as they are less commonly known as: people, can measure those cortisol levels through several methods. In fact, they measure ours in two ways.
Researchers have found that cortisol levels accumulate in your hair over time. This, combined with the fact that hair grows at a known rate, means that it’s possible to look at hair samples and measure accumulated stress over time.
If you have very long hair, then you have a much longer ‘stress history’ that you can look at and see how your stress has changed over that period of growth. This means you could extract this information and see, physically, what your biological response to stress has been each month.
In here, we cut a sample of our hair monthly, usually setting up a fake barbershop in the hab before eventually turning the scissors on the barber himself.
Once a week, you’ll find a crew of engineers and scientists huddled in the corner of a large plastic bubble spitting into tubes. It’s every bit as charming as you can imagine.
As we collect our samples, a few of us that have practiced sign language try and say things to one another in hopes that they will crack up, while others may resort to funny faces. This potential increase in specimen makes for a more interesting time for the sample-collector. With each sample, our technique improves dramatically.
The secret is for going for the less intuitive ‘I’m still asleep’ drool pattern. (Don’t tell anyone)
These saliva samples can be used to extract much different information than the hair. Cortisol levels can be measured in saliva as well, but tend to fluctuate throughout the day, rather than accumulate over time. The idea here is to look at whether our biological rhythms change throughout the mission and how as we adapt to an isolated environment.
Stress research is just one of the many projects being conducted in here. It is, however, an intriguing way to measure and think about stress. Your body’s mechanisms for reacting to stress are active regardless of your thoughts or perceived emotions. Being able to measure that may be able to provide you with an understanding of your well-being and its ties to your performance that self-reflection may be missing.
All you need is to be able to drool efficiently….and a team of scientists.
Keep those cortisol levels low, everyone. Woooo-Saaaah…
TLDR: We spit sometimes, for science. We cut our hair sometimes, for science. People look at how stressed we are, for science. Could that cause stress?