For all of the wonderful and enjoyable aspects of Paris, there is a slight hint of danger that goes along with being a tourist in a foreign city. Whether it’s defending your traveling minion from potential pickpocketers (Sam,) warding off aggressive wine salesmen at the Eiffel Tower (Sehe,) and making friends with RER train guards to protect you from the party animals at Châtelet (Noareen, Ankita, and Max,) being an American (and sticking out like a sore thumb) in Paris can be somewhat stressful in these kinds of situations. As a group, we were collectively prepared for this before we came on the trip. Kris, our protective guide, gave us plenty of warnings about the pickpocketers before we finished the spring semester this last year at Emory. Needless to say, we all have padlocks on our backpacks when we go anywhere. We always travel with buddies, and frequently with the entire crew. Most importantly, we have all picked up the ability to walk past the guys selling trinkets on the street without saying a word or even looking in their general direction. While this behavior is very different from the way people treat one another on Emory’s campus, it is definitely necessary for navigating the streets of Paris safely.
Just in this last weekend, we probably experienced some of the most anxiety inducing situations of the entire trip. Let me preface this story by saying we are perfectly fine and laugh about this experience already. This Friday, the summer solstice, was the annual Fête de la Musique where musicians, old and young, come out onto the streets and play their violins, bagpipes, guitars, electronic techno equipment, and bell-piano hybrids that need to be driven around on trucks. All of Paris spends the night celebrating the musical festival in the streets and enjoying the good life. However, with all of this fun, there are some people who take to the partying aspect more than others. We quickly learned to give these patrons a wide berth, and kept an even closer eye on each other as a group. While trying to get back home after the festival, some of us squeezed each others hands as we ran away from dangerous situations until we got to the safety of the Cité Universitaire. Good thing we decided to wear comfortable shoes that night!
So, being in Paris has been a great experience, but it’s exposed me to different kinds of stresses than what I’m used to at Emory. Of course, we all stay up late doing research for Dr. Crutcher’s class, and finishing our writing assignments for Dr. Frenzel. This “stressful” aspect of taking classes is nothing new. On the other hand, avoiding confrontation while trying to remember our way around the city and communicating with strangers that don’t speak English is a completely new kind of stress. The effects of stress on the brain has been a topic of many research studies trying to understand the stress mechanisms. In the body, stress causes the release of molecules called glucocorticoids from the adrenal glands above the kidneys (Webster and Sternberg, 2004). These molecules can travel through the blood and affect the brain (Webster and Sternberg, 2004). Glucocorticoids have been shown to be helpful when memories become stored in the brain, but cause problems when people are trying to recall information in their memory (Soravia et al., 2009). These molecules, in cortisone form, have been used to treat people with disorders related to frightening memories, such as PTSD and phobias (Soravia et al., 2009). In previous studies, the introduction of cortisol when subjects were introduced to situations related to their fearful memories reduced the fearful symptoms they had previously displayed when being exposed to the scary stimulus (Soravia et al., 2006).
In a recent study by Soravia and associates in 2009, the researchers were looking at the effects of cortisone (glucocorticoid) administration in normal people to see if there was reduced fear in socially frightening situations, just like how they had seen fear symptom reduction in people with fear disorders (Soravia et al., 2009). The potential fear inducing social situation the subjects were tested in was comprised of the subjects explaining why someone should hire them, and then attempting an unprepared mental arithmetic task (Soravia et al., 2009). Cortisone administration was found to have no effect on fear symptom reduction in this group of healthy individuals tested in this study (Soravia et al., 2009). The symptoms measured were subjective ratings of anxiety (feelings of nervousness and worry,) physical discomfort, and avoidance behavior of the interaction (Soravia et al., 2009). With increased amounts of cortisone administration, measured through saliva samples, the data in this study indicated no significant reduction in the amount of subjective fear symptoms the participants experienced (Soravia et al., 2009).
These data seem to suggest that the potential fear reducing properties of glucocorticoids in people with pathological fears do not apply to normal people (Soravia et al., 2009). In past studies, the medial temporal lobe (MTL), a part located on the side of the brain, has been shown to be very important in memory retrieval (Soravia et al., 2009). In social phobic subjects as compared to subjects without fear of social situations, the MTL was reported to activate when the people were in public speaking scenarios and was activation was prevented with drug administration (Soravia et al., 2009). Maybe patients with social phobias have more memory of fear related to these situations, or maybe they are more prone to the effects of the administered glucocorticoids (Soravia et al., 2009). Based on the data gathered in this study, it seems that this possible treatment effect can only be applied to people with fear memories that are so deeply rooted that they feel distressed when they are retrieving and recalling the troublesome memories (Soravia et al., 2009).
While the time we have spent in Paris has been full of fun adventures and plenty of acquired academic knowledge and street smarts, it has not been without some situational stress. The feeling of a language barrier and a different culture may have had an effect on all of us, but may only be partially alleviated by cortisone administration if we had a pathological fear of these scenarios, as the Soravia study seems to suggest (Soravia et al., 2009). While I can say that I have not acquired a pathological fear of a new culture, or even early morning party animals, I have definitely learned a few tactics that are essential to survival of the tourist lifestyle. Just a word to the wise if you plan on traveling to Paris anytime soon, make sure you do your homework on the potential perils of your voyage. The pickpocketers know you’re coming, and may literally steal your IPad out of your hands while you’re taking video of the Eiffel Tower. You want to also know how to reject aggressive salesmen or people interested in you at a bar. The more you know, the better prepared you are to deal with these kind of potential situations that can put a damper on your trip. Take an opportunity beforehand to put your mind at ease, and enjoy the different atmosphere a new city has to offer safely.
~ Emily Aidan Berthiaume
Soravia L, Heinrichs M, Aerni A, Maroni C, Schelling G, Ehlert U, Roozendaal B, de Quervain D (2006) Glucocorticoids reduce phobic fear in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America 103:5585-5590.
Soravia L, de Quervain D, Heinrichs M (2009) Glucocorticoids do not reduce subjective fear in healthy subjects to social stress. Biological Psychology.
Webster J and Sternberg E (2004) Role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, glucocorticoids and glucocorticoid receptors in toxic sequelae of exposure to bacterial and viral products. Journal of Endocrinology 181:207-221.