Calm down, it's not a mammoth!
Rethinking our body's reaction to stress

Photo credit: Bonesso Dumas

CIHR Foundation Grant Recipient

Dr. Sonia Lupien
Full Professor
Department of Psychiatry
Faculty of Medicine
Université de Montréal

Dr. Lupien's Research

No matter how young or how old we are, our brain mounts a stress response when presented with a threat, either real or imagined. This survival mechanism served our prehistoric ancestors well. When faced with a charging mammoth, they needed to make a quick decision, so the stress response served to trigger the 'fight or flight' reaction.

But sometimes, our brain plays tricks on us.

Dr. Sonia Lupien, a CIHR funded-researcher, has developed a number of methodologies to help us to put things into perspective. First and foremost, it is important to understand that not all stress is bad. In fact, it can save your life. The key is controlling our reaction to stress.

"When we know how the stress system works, it is quite easy to control the stress response. My main goal in research is to understand the mechanism of stress so that I can transfer this knowledge to the general public. This is what the Foundation Grant obtained from CIHR will help me to do."

Dr. Sonia Lupien

For the past several years, Dr. Lupien and her team have been working hard to convince us that, in most cases, stress is all perception, and while the giant mammoth may only be a figment of our imagination, the danger posed by sustained periods of stress is very real.

This is why it is so important to get a handle on stress and Dr. Lupien's very popular NUTS theory is helping people of all ages do just that.

Her recipe for managing stress involves deconstructing the threat into four easily understood components; Novelty; Unpredictability; Threat to Ego, and Sense of low control (NUTS), in order to accurately assess the stressor.

So far, no mammoths have been found.


  • You must learn a new computer software program from scratch and it completely changes your work habits. Or, you are expecting your first child.


  • You learn that daycare workers and teachers will go on strike but you have no clue when. Or, you have a moody boss with new demands every day.

Threat to the ego

  • A new employee keeps asking you why you do things a certain way as if doubting your methods. Or, you are meeting your child's teacher who asks you how much time you spend helping your child with homework.

Sense of Control

  • You are in a hurry to get to an important meeting and you get caught in a huge traffic jam. Or, your child is diagnosed with a serious illness that leaves you powerless to help ease his/her suffering.

Take home message

When faced with (or anticipating in) a situation that is either novel, unpredictable, threatens our ego, or lowers our sense of control we all secrete stress hormones. Do you know when you are secreting stress hormones?

Can you recognize YOUR stress?

Reproduced with permission from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS)
Source: CSHS: Recipe for Stress

What Dr. Lupien has found, observing and decoding the mysteries surrounding the impact of stress on memory and brain function, is the role played by the stress hormone, cortisol, a member of the glucorticoids class, and its effects on the brain throughout our lifespan.

According to Dr. Lupien: "Stress does not make the difference between a 6 year-old and a 65 year-old. Activation of the stress system will lead to the production of stress hormones in both individuals. However, the chronic production of stress hormones will delay brain development in the 6 year-old, while it will accelerate brain aging in the 65 year-old."

Glucorticoids (GC) are a biomarker of stress, sending an urgent message to the brain when faced with a perceived danger. Dr. Lupien has concluded that there is a clear difference in our body's reaction to acute (short-term) stress and chronic (long-term) stress, which exacts the greatest toll.

This discovery led to the creation and validation of a highly successful DeStress for Success Program © geared toward adolescents, and a web-based educational program for adults, Stress Inc. Program ©. Both are making important inroads in educating the public on how to recognize the signs of stress and then employ easy to learn techniques to manage it. Dr. Lupien's research serves as a shining example of how scientific knowledge can transfer successfully from the laboratory to make a positive difference in our day-to-day lives.

Supporting Advances in Stress Research

Dr. Lupien hopes to leverage this CIHR grant to advance her research on stress, studying its effects across the lifespan, particularly with regard to how it relates to mental health. She also hopes to observe how social factors impact stress reactivity and resiliency, exploring the association between the use of social media and stress, the effects of stress on prosocial behaviour, and the effects of stressful situations on witnesses, especially children. For instance, Dr. Lupien has discovered elevated levels of glucorticoids in young children growing up in households where poverty is omnipresent.

Dr. Lupien and her team intend to concentrate their research efforts on understanding why young adults are especially susceptible to what she describes as "technostress." Seventy-three percent of teens and 65% of adults visit social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook and Twitter when they are online.  Dr. Lupien believes that not all SNS are bad and that there may be beneficial effects to social media, including an enhanced perception of support from their network of virtual friends, or supporters, a phenomenon she hopes to probe further.

About Dr. Lupien

Dr. Sonia Lupien is Founder and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress and is a full professor with the Department of Psychiatry at Université de Montréal.

Date modified: