Why I made this website
Hi again – Pamela Coburn-Litvak here. Friends and family call me Pam.
Before I tell you about myself, let’s talk about YOU for a minute.
Have you ever gone through a really stressful time in your life, like losing a job, or losing a loved one?
How did you feel during that time?
What we commonly describe as “feeling stressed out” can be described in other ways as well:
- feeling worried
- feeling anxious
- feeling sad
- feeling helpless
- feeling hopeless
Have you ever felt any of these while going through a major stressor in your life?
I know I have.
And not just with major stressors, but even more minor stuff as well. These feelings can develop over time as we struggle to deal with the everyday, chronic stress of life.
Here’s the interesting thing about this list: ALL of these feelings are associated with the two most prevalent mind-brain disorders in the world today: anxiety and depression.
This means that there must be a direct LINK between the stress we experience and the resulting feelings of anxiety and depression.
As a stress researcher, I have spent nearly two decades studying that link, with the goal of learning HOW TO BREAK IT.
My goal for this website is really simple: to share with you all of the ways I have learned to break this link.
Let me be clear at the outset: stress is not the only trigger that causes depression and anxiety disorders to develop. But research statistics say that about 80% of cases of clinical depression are preceded by some sort of stressful event.1 This argues that stress is one of the major triggers.
So if you and I can learn the secrets of managing our stress effectively, we can deflect a major risk factor for anxiety and depression.
But what if you are already suffering from anxiety or depression? Don’t worry – this website will have lots of research-based guidance for dealing with these disorders in the most effective ways possible.
In short, this is my dream for you:
Instead of feeling anxious, helpless, or hopeless due to the stressors of life, I want to you to feel calm, clear-headed and in control.
I would love the opportunity to teach you how to do this.
Are you game?
Read on to learn more about my research and professional background.
1Hammen, C. (2005). Stress and depression. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 1, 293-319.
How I got involved in stress research
My interest in mental health began in college. I originally planned to be a doctor (perhaps a psychiatrist), so I took all the required pre-med courses and was accepted to medical school at the end of my senior year. But by then, I was re-thinking my career plans – I had become heavily involved in research and thought I might enjoy university teaching more than clinical work.
So instead of med school, I headed for the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I got my Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior. And at Stony Brook, my general interest in mental health found a specific focus: stress.
Stress is a pretty broad topic, so let me narrow it down a bit.
I’m not talking about physical stress here, like natural disasters or accidents. We all know how challenging and downright dangerous those types of stressors can be.
But have you ever noticed that even physical stressors can have a biting, psychological edge to them?
Maybe you’ve had this experience: you were in a car accident six months ago, but you still have nightmares about it now. You wake up from each nightmare in a cold sweat, with your heart pounding in your ears.
It feels like you are re-living the event all over again. And every time you do, you experience the same wave of fear.
I’ve felt that fear, too. In fact, most of us already know that a severely stressful event can continue generating feelings of terror and anxiety for several weeks, months, or even years past the original event.
So, as perilous as physical stress is, the main type of stress affecting the world today is psychological stress. Psychological stress involves the mental and emotional aftershocks that disturb and disrupt our minds long after the initial event has passed.
Psychological stress also includes the obsessive worries we sometimes have about the future. In this way, we humans have the unique capacity to pull feelings of fear, anxiety, and despair, both from past stressful events, and nebulous future events, into our present reality.
And this is a heavy burden for our minds to bear.
Here’s a basic truth about stress: it can really mess up the brain.
There are multiple mechanisms through which this happens, but one main mechanism involves stress hormones.
Constantly re-living a stressful event from the past, or constantly worrying about the future, will trick the rest of the nervous system into believing that the body is under some sort of threat right now, in the present.
The nervous system responds by cranking out stress hormones. These stress hormones will travel through the bloodstream and bind to their receptors all over the body, but they also bind to hormone-specific receptors in the brain.
If they are only around for a short time, stress hormones help the brain out by sharpening our senses, making us feel more alert, and improving our memory.
You can see how this would be helpful if the body actually is under some sort of threat – all these changes would help us track the threat better in our surroundings and help us remember it better for future reference.
But when they remain high for a long time, stress hormones are bad news.
My Ph.D. dissertation specifically asked the question, what happens when you constantly bathe the brain in stress hormones? The short answer is, this can eventually lead to structural and chemical changes in the brain that increase our vulnerability to disorders like depression and anxiety.
How I got involved in public speaking and writing about stress, depression, and anxiety
I fully expected to continue down the academic path after graduate school. My first job was at a health sciences university in southern California. I was recruited there especially to work in the office of one of the vice presidents, and that took up most of my time. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a few hours of teaching here and there in the medical school and dental school.
Then I made an unexpected – and pretty drastic – career move.
When my second daughter was born, I decided to take a hiatus from full-time work in order to stay at home with her and her big sister. To say that this hiatus was unexpected would be a major understatement – up to that point, I had been working nonstop and full-throttle on my career. So no one was more surprised than I when I decided to quit.
But I don’t regret a single minute of the time I spent at home with my children. Along with my husband, my girls are the cherished center of my world. My family is, and always will be, far more important than any career success I have achieved or will achieve.
It’s not that I gave up my career completely – I just pushed it further into the periphery of my life. Fortunately, this move also worked out for the health sciences university where I had been employed, and they hired me as an independent contractor for several years.
Later, when both my daughters were both school-age, I went back to full-time university teaching. I joined the biology faculty of a small, liberal arts university in the Midwest where I taught courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness.
I LOVE the academic life. I also LOVE to teach. In my humble opinion, nothing beats getting paid to learn new stuff and then getting to teach that stuff to others. I’ve been privileged to teach a wide range of students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
But through the years, I have felt another passion growing deep down inside: to teach to an even wider audience.
Simultaneously, my own research interests expanded beyond studying stress, to studying stress-related disorders including depression and anxiety. I craved a deeper understanding of these serious mind-brain disorders. I wanted to know what research has taught us about the origins of these disorders and how to best treat them. And then I wanted to be able to share that cutting-edge knowledge with, not just my students in the academic world, but the public at large.
So in 2008, I founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education. Since the company’s inception, I’ve conducted dozens of health seminars for the general public on the topics of stress management and depression recovery.
In 2016, I made an even more drastic move: I quit the academic life in order to work at my company full time.
And that’s what I am doing now. Here are just a few of my current projects:
- I am currently writing a book about my own experiences with stress-induced depression (you can read a little about this in my first blog post);
- continuing to book speaking engagements;
- starting a podcast later this year;
- and adding as much new information to this website as I can.
If you or someone you love has suffered from depression and/or anxiety, I invite you to take this journey with me!
What People Are Saying About Me
Here are a few comments on my seminars:
Balanced and encouraging
Thank you, Dr. Pam, for such a balanced, encouraging presentation. I'm so motivated to transform my stressors into resilient behaviors.”
Cream of the crop
As a motivational speaker and wholistic wellness advocate for many years, I have listened to countless presentations on stress, but Dr. Coburn-Litvak’s program is the cream of the crop.
It is the finest, scientifically well researched and logically presented program on stress I have ever encountered. Dr. Coburn-Litvak has exceptional ability to present deep scientific information in the language of the lay man."
Excellent and so knowledgable
Your presentation on the Shadowlands of Stress and Depression was very well received and we were all blessed with greater knowledge on how the mind works and things we can do to prevent depression! Comments about your presentation: “excellent and so knowledgable!"
Far beyond my expectations
This stress seminar has helped me tremendously, far beyond my expectations. The scientific presentations were adapted to laymen like me.”
You provided a realistic explanation to help us understand how and why stress and depression affect our brain and body.”
Wonderful weekend stress seminar
I would like to thank you in a very special way for taking time out from your busy schedule to come to our church and give such a wonderful weekend stress seminar."
Pam Coburn-Litvak brings practical insights into stress management from a wealth of knowledge regarding brain function.
Her quiet, confident approach to life shows the maturing effect of having lived in New York City during and after the 9-11 tragedy which for her brought deep recommitment to living a life of service to others at its fullest."
My Other Hobbies and Interests
I currently live in California with my husband Oleg (whom I met at Stony Brook). Our two daughters are close to completely grown up now. Happily for them but sadly for us, they both attend boarding school elsewhere.
When I’m not studying or teaching about stress, I enjoy stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, hiking, biking, knitting, cooking, and reading.
Oh, and I’m a huge PBS fan. So when I’m not watching something on Netflix, I’m surfing the great documentaries, how-to shows, and historical dramas with the PBS app.
I think that’s pretty much it for me.
I’d love to know more about you. Please feel free to contact me and tell me your story.