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Psychology of Stress and Health



[BSc], GPH, Psy

Admission requirements

  • Classes of 2013-2016: similarly-tagged 100/200-level courses or permission from the instructor.

Please note this course is only available to students of the Leiden University College The Hague.### Course description

Stress is a major determinant of global public health. Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization and is associated with massive humanitarian, medical and economic costs. This course will introduce the basic principles of how our body’s health is threatened by psychosocial stressors as diverse as daily worries, work stress, low social economic status, discrimination and natural disasters. A major role will be played by psychological factors such as perceived control, and conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions. The lectures will cover the many ways in which the mind influences the body during stress, including the cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems, metabolism, sleep, growth, ageing, reproduction and sex. We will discuss stress management and recent contributions from the field of emotion regulation.

Stress is not a ‘luxury problem’ of the industrialized countries, but is also, and perhaps even more so, a leading health risk in less developed countries. Therefore, we will also explore the global relevance of stress and health.

There is hardly a concept that is so ill-defined in and outside science and at the same time so important for our health as stress. Not surprisingly the media – especially internet – are teeming with erroneous information about its effect on health. The student will learn how to systematically gather information about stress and health thereby training the essential academic skill of distinguishing scientific knowledge from omnipresent unsupported claims in the rapidly accumulating information volume in the media (especially internet), and evaluate this knowledge in terms of its meaning for public health.

Weekly overview

Week 1 Introduction: stress response and evolution.
Week 2 Stress and disease: Who falls ill and from which stress?
Week 3 Stress, heart attacks and killer cells.
Week 4 Stress and the life cycle: Sex, reproduction, metabolism, growth, aging….
Week 5 How stress responses become chronic (or not).
Week 6 Stress without awareness.
Week 7 Stress management.

Learning objectives

Understanding of:

  • Why we respond to modern psychosocial stressors with evolutionary ‘old’ bodily responses that can threaten health;

  • How the mind can influence the (whole) body: the major psycho-biological mechanisms underlying the acute and chronic stress responses;

  • The main approaches to stress management.

The ability to:

  • Develop systematic keyword profiles to search scientific literature, and use this to answer stress-related questions that are relevant for national or global public health;

  • Report the results in a concise and coherent review, presented orally;

  • Tell scientifically supported claims from unsupported claims about stress and health in the media.

Mode of instruction

This course will consist of two x two hour weekly seminars which will be delivered through a combination of lectures, group presentations, class discussion and debates. Each week the first meeting will consist of a lecture focusing on one major topic in stress and health. Knowledge of material from the lectures and the associated compulsory reading list will be tested by a diagnostic mid-term exam and the last meeting will partly be in question-answer format and serve as preparation for the final exam. The second weekly meetings will be dedicated to discussions of various assignments and presentations, and to optional questions about the preceding lectures. One core assignment across several meetings will consist of searching for scientific answers to contemporary questions about stress and health in society, in small groups of students. After an initial exploratory and naive ‘dive’ into internet or other media, the search for knowledge will steadily become more scientifically focused over the subsequent meetings. This search will be documented in several ways: by short weekly group presentations, contemporary-style brief (‘twitterlike’) communications, a final presentation and structured discussion or debate (the latter depending on the level of controversy of the presented topic).


Digital materials and in-class participation: 10%
Digital reports / in-class presentations: 20%, Weeks 2-4
final digital report / in-class presentation: 30%, Week 5
Final MC exam: 40%, Week 8

Compulsory literature

Robert Sapolsky (2004). “Why zebras don’t get ulcers” An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. W H Freeman & Co updated.

A reader will be provided on Blackboard
Other recommended reading material will be provided on Blackboard

Preparation first session

For the first meeting (lecture 1) reading chapter 1, 2 and 3 of Sapolsky (see Reading list) is required.