Studying the key to reducing stress

On the eve of her graduation from a PhD on stress and mental illness, Christina Phassouliotis tells Neos Kosmos about the debilitating effects stress can have on people's minds and bodies

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, people become more stressed.

Stress does have detrimental effects, not only on your behaviour and level of well-being, but also on your body.

You can hear it in their voices. It’s a hurriedness, a tightness, a sense of urgency. But Christina Phassouliotis seems to be immune from it.

She takes her time telling me about her PhD, from which she graduates today, at an official ceremony at the University of Melbourne.
The PhD was about stress and mental illness.

Dr Phassouliotis (and I hope she gets a kick out of reading that, ‘Dr Phassouliotis’) pauses to make sure she’s using enough “layman’s terms” to make it understandable. There’s a relaxed tone to her voice that is rare for this time of year.

But, she tells me, she hasn’t always been this calm.

“I actually, when I finished my degree, I didn’t know where I wanted to go, what I wanted to study,” she says.

As an undergraduate, Dr Phassouliotis did a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biochemistry, microbiology and immunology. But when she graduated, the pressure began to mount.

“I worked very hard to the point where I experienced exhaustion, and symptoms of panic disorder, although I was never clinically diagnosed, and symptoms of depression.

“And I went to my GP who basically prescribed medication, but I didn’t receive any psychotherapy.

“I was able to overcome these stressful times using my own innate skills or learning behaviour, and I felt that that was my area I wanted to focus on – stress, and how stress can lead to mental health disorders.”

So the young researcher signed up for a PhD with the University of Melbourne and Orygen Youth Health, looking at stress in patients suffering from the early stages of psychotic illnesses.

She met with the patients, conducted interviews and looked at how stress impacted on their mental health.
And while researching other people’s stress, Dr Phassouliotis found she was able to manage her own.

“I found it a very positive experience that allowed me to develop at a personal level as well as at a research level,” she says.

“And I found a lot of support through family and friends,” she says, mentioning her mother, Dr Erma Vassiliou, as well as her two supervisors, Dr Belinda Garner and Australian of the Year Prof. Patrick McGorry.

But, she tells me, her PhD wasn’t all stress-free.

“I found that the most stressful situation was probably the workload,” she says, echoing the sentiments of PhD students from throughout the ages.

Conscious of managing the pressures of her workload, Dr Phassouliotis developed strategies to make sure she didn’t collapse under the pressure.

“I think the most important key is discipline, when you’re working on a PhD, to learn focus on what you’re doing, because you can easily get overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s out there,” she says.

She says, when it all got too consuming, she’d walk away from her desk and come back.

“I kept thinking of this analogy that my supervisor posed: it’s like eating an elephant,” she says.

“You have to take one mouthful, one chew at a time and eventually you’ll get through it.”

And while the heavy workload meant she didn’t have as much time for socialising, she says it was important not to become a total hermit.

“You do need to remember that you do need some level of social contact to stimulate your brain and mind,” she says.

And for someone who approaches mental health from a biological perspective, rather than a strictly clinical one, stimulating the brain is something Dr Phassouliotis understands very well.
She says stress can actually change the chemistry of the brain.

“Stress does have detrimental effects, not only on your behaviour and level of well-being, but also on your body,” she says.

“People need to be mindful of that and try to deal with stress in a positive way.”

So to relax her mind after her PhD, the 30 year-old took off on a six-month jaunt through Western Europe with her partner, including a trip to Cyprus, where she was born.

Now, she’s looking for work in mental health research and preparing for Christmas at home with her family.
Her brother’s returning from Europe, and the young mental health researcher says she’s looking forward to making gingerbread houses and enjoying hanging out at home, in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs.

So, she’s not stressed, then?

“No, no, there’s no need for it,” she laughs.

And there really isn’t.