Psych Students Shedding Light on Body Image and Military Stress

Allan Sinfuego and Corinna Adams on campus walkway.

Bastyr University health psychology student Corinna Adams spent much of this school year researching depression and body weight in adolescents, discovering the powerful role that body image plays in the lives of many teenagers. Her classmate Allan Sinfuego devoted his year to studying domestic violence and stress in military families, finding that military counseling programs can be surprisingly effective.

In the world of psychology graduate studies, these studies aren't so unusual. What's unusual is that Adams and Sinfuego are undergraduates, conducting advanced research as a capstone project for their senior year in Bastyr's health psychology program.

The two worked under the mentorship of Bastyr health psychology professor Naomi Lester, PhD, on the yearlong projects. Each crafted a hypothesis and tested it against dozens of clinical studies. This spring both will present their findings through talks and research posters on campus.

"It's not often you can really, really focus on one subject and present what you learn to peers and professors," says Sinfuego. "When the opportunity arose to do my own research on a subject I felt passionate about, I couldn't pass that up."

The optional senior research thesis is a unique offering of the health psychology program, giving students a head start on a career in research or giving them experience with a subject they hope to specialize in as counselors or care providers.

"We've really tailored the projects to fit students' career interests," says Dr. Lester. "That shows potential graduate programs that an undergraduate student has already worked in the field. They've become familiar with a body of literature and have learned how to integrate the findings of many different studies. They're so much further along than someone who's just heard about a topic in class."

It's All Connected: Depression, Body Weight and Body Image

Adams' interest in psychology has roots in her previous career in human relations. Mediating "deep and murky" workplace relations caused her to want to learn more about human behavior. And raising two daughters inspired her interest in counseling adolescents.

She began her thesis last year with a hypothesis that depression, eating disorders and unhealthy body weight had many points of connection in both teenagers and adults. In reviewing clinical studies on these issues, she found that body image — a person's perception of their physical appearance — emerged as the most common unifying factor.

"It becomes the core issue," she says. "People with a poor body image are more likely to eat poorly, to have depressive symptoms, and to have eating disorders. It becomes a tough cycle to break if you're trying to fix each symptom separately."

Too often, she found critical body-image perceptions last beyond the teenage years and contribute later in life to depression and weight challenges (for both overweight and underweight adults). Adams hopes to bring that perspective with her as she pursues a career in counseling. Seeing friends of her daughters struggle with body image led her to choose that as a focus.

"It's made me more aware of what to pay attention to," she says. "I have friends who say 'That's just part of being a teenager.' But no, it's not. I'd like to work with kids who may not have an adult who has an understanding of these things."

Counseling in the Military

Sinfuego's father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as Navy sailors, which showed him the importance of supportive families for those deployed overseas.

"Everyone in the military experiences stress," he says. "I grew up in a military family, so I could see how important it is to have strong family support to help cope with stress."

He plans to become a mental health counselor in the military and figured his senior thesis was a chance to dive deeply into some of the most challenging issues that veterans face. The 70-some studies he reviewed confirmed his suspicion that workplace stress, social stress and financial stress all corresponded with domestic violence rates. He also found that domestic violence rates appeared to be lower among U.S. active-duty servicemen than in civilian groups (many studies did not consider reserves or enlisted women).

That surprised him. Most major studies in the past 40 years found higher violence rates in the military, but a major study in 2007 found the opposite, he says.

Sinfuego is cautious about ascribing causes, but he says post-deployment counseling programs, such as the Marine Corps' Families Overcoming Under Stress (FOCUS) program, appear to be effective.

"These programs are providing family counseling for both spouses, so when a military service member comes home, they're not going from one stressful environment to another,” he says. “They're preparing the home to be a welcoming place. When those kinds of programs are implemented and funded, they do a lot of good."

A Sea of Data

Both Adams and Sinfuego conducted literature reviews, analyzing existing clinical studies instead of studying subjects directly through survey or experimental methods. Dr. Lester, the research lead in the Department of Counseling and Health Psychology, says that approach has several advantages.

"That is, increasingly, an essential skill," she says. "There's so much information available now. The keys are knowing how to ask the right questions, pulling out the information that you want, evaluating it critically and finding the organizational scaffolding for it all in a way that it answers a question."

In her project, Adams found an abundance of data, but not much on the connections between health issues that seem to feed off each other.

"There's so much research out there, but not a lot that ties it all together," she says. "It was great to make those connections and compare things in a different way."