Assistance Professor, Psychology
College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Peggy Zoccola, assistant professor of psychology, specializes in finding the basic mechanisms underlying the relationship between stress and disease. Her current research focuses on understanding how thoughts and emotions may prolong the body’s stress responses and the potential health consequences of this persistent activation.
Zoccola focuses on this topic of research because she believes that stress is an inevitable part of life.
“Although a large body of evidence links the experience of stress to negative health outcomes, there is a great deal of variability in how individuals respond to stressful life events,” she says.
Zoccola addresses a series of theoretical questions in her research in order to distinguish how the differences between individuals and the conditions of stressful situations impact health.
Zoccola and her team are the first to study acute immune effects of stress, rumination, and distraction in an experimental way. Zoccola’s program of research includes an interdisciplinary focus, varied research methods ranging from laboratory experiments to electronic daily diaries, sophisticated assessments across physiological and motor systems, such as noninvasive continuous blood pressure and electrocardiography, and advanced statistical analyses.
Many researchers in the past have studied the correlational relationship between rumination and hormone and immune changes in the body, but few have examined the casual relationship with experimental designs, Zoccola says.
In a recently published study, Zoccola and her team asked participants to ruminate, or dwell, on a stressful incident. Using blood samples, they found that compared to participants who were distracted, those who ruminated had higher levels of C-reactive protein – a marker of tissue inflammation.
This indicates that thinking about stress may cause a negative physical impact on the body.
“More and more, chronic inflammation is being associated with various disorders and conditions,” Zoccola says. “The immune system plays an important role in various cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, as well as cancer, dementia and autoimmune disease.”
Building on that study, Zoccola and her colleagues are now searching for the effect rumination has on additional inflammation markers, with plans to widen the age of participants to include older adults.
Zoccola hopes that her work will lead to a better understanding of the basic mechanisms by which stressors may impact physiology, health, and disease.
“By making this discovery, we can establish profiles of stress-related risk and resiliency and reveal potential points and pathways of intervention,” she says.
Zoccola's media placements include: