Universiteit Leiden

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Donations for research projects with relevance to society

Psychologists Marieke Tollenaar, Anne Miers and Esther van den Bos received donations from the Leiden University Fund and Stichting Praesidium Libertatis to take crucial first steps in research projects that may eventually contribute to the well-being of vulnerable youth.

Picture of Marieke Tollenaar

Physical health in children with psychological problems

Marieke Tollenaar will study the immune system in children with a depression. Research has shown that adults with psychological problems, such as depression or post-traumatic stress, have a heightened risk for problems with their physical health. Chronic stress is thought to be one of the causes of this heightened disease risk. Long-term stress can lead to imbalance in the internal systems that regulate stress hormones (such as adrenalin and cortisol), which in turn can impact the brain and immune system. This may explain how psychological stress can lead to physical health problems. However, as yet little is known about the relation between psychological and physical health in children, and the potential role of the immune system.
With this grant, the immune system will be studied in a group of adolescents with a depression, and compared to immune functioning in a group of healthy adolescents. Furthermore, Marieke hopes to show that successful treatment of depressive symptoms will lead to restoration of potential imbalance in the immune system.

Picture of Anne Miers

PoPPSaY! The Power of Positive Peers for Socially Anxious Youth

Effective and accessible prevention methods for socially anxious adolescents are a public health priority.  A quarter of adolescents report a high level of fear for social situations. These adolescents are caught in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts about their social abilities and anxiety. Current methods focus on reducing negative cognitions about other people’s social behavior. In this project a new method that includes the crucial and influential peer context and focuses on modifying these self-related negative thoughts will be tested in a group of young adolescents. 
In this project Anne Miers will examine whether positive peer feedback can modify the negative self-relevant cognitions in a positive direction, and reduce social anxiety. The grant supports the appointment of a research assistant to set-up and conduct the study. In addition to the scientific benefits the project’s results will be used to inform the development of an accessible adjunctive e-health intervention to help socially anxious teenagers approach social situations with confidence. 

Picture of Esther van den Bos

Eye to eye

Esther van den Bos hopes to develop a computerized training for socially anxious youth to practice making eye-contact. People with social anxiety tend to avoid eye-contact, because they fear to see signs of rejection in the eyes of another person. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it causes them to miss positive interpersonal signals, so that they keep thinking that they are being rejected even when they are not. Second, avoidance of eye-contact may actually trigger negative reactions, which may strenghten or maintain their anxiety.  Learning not to avoid eye-contact requires much practice with many different people. Therefore, a computerized training with virtual conversation partners could be a useful addition to treatment. 
In the pilot project funded by this grant, Esther investigates whether eye-contact can be stimulated by friendly non-verbal reactions. Research assistant Evania Fasya is currently developing virtual conversation partners, who show friendly non-verbal behaviours when the participant makes eye-contact.

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