Standing up to Stress

Ulrike Ehlert has had to cope with many a difficult situation in life. Today she is a leading light in psychobiological stress research who also takes a very hands-on approach to looking at what triggers stress and how we can deal with it.

Text: Simona Ryser
English translation: Astrid Freuler

Psychologist Ulrike Ehlert is just returning from the village shop. She likes to go on foot to get a bit of respite from her work, which can be stressful at times. Though she’s currently on a sabbatical in the Engadine, there’s no escape from work for Ehlert, who is continuing her research and treating patients – now via Zoom due to coronavirus. The everyday stress that weighs us all down at times is one of Ulrike Ehlert’s research fields. A professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy, she is also a leading light in psychobiological stress research. Even in her early days as an academic at the University of Trier, she was already exploring the ups and downs of the stress hormone cortisol and uncovering possible risk and protection factors. “Stress develops in difficult situations and, depending on a person’s resilience, can have a greater or lesser impact on their psyche, potentially causing depression or anxiety,” Ehlert explains. There are also very specific stages in life when our hormonal balance can go haywire. Presently, Ehlert and her doctoral candidates are engaged in evaluating a longitudinal study that aims to shed light on what effect this has on our sense of wellbeing. With her deep voice, she herself seems pretty resistant to stress as she talks about her working life as a researcher.

Dance of the sex hormones

Ehlert has been fascinated by the elaborate interaction between hormones and the psyche since her early days in academia. Several of her studies have centered on the dance of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can make life hard for some women. She has been comparing the hormonal fluctuations before and after women give birth with those experienced during the menopause. Her findings indicate that the degree of fluctuation plays a key role: Women who experience severe estrogen fluctuations have a high probability of suffering from depression, whereas women with a slightly raised progesterone level are more resilient. “These insights can be very valuable when it comes to preventing depressive episodes during the latter years of the menopause,” says Ehlert, whose work forms part of the university’s research focus ‘Dynamics of Healthy Aging’. In a next step, Ehlert wants to take a closer look at the volatile hormones from an epigenetic viewpoint. Her aim is to determine how environmental influences affect the function of the genes that control the sex hormones.

Ehlert shakes her voluminous blond hair and leans back in the chair. Behind her stands an imposing wood dresser with magnificent Engadine rosettes. She actually wanted to go to art college, she comments, but for her rather conservative parents this was out of the question. Ehlert was born in the Upper Franconian town of Ebermannstadt, the youngest of three children. As the baby of the family, she was often in the care of her eldest brother. It was at high school that she discovered psychology. Latin was never her strong point, Ehlert recounts with a laugh, but luckily her Latin teacher also taught psychology as an elective subject. She was fascinated by it. When at 17 and 18 she had the opportunity to undergo practical training as a nursing assistant at the hospital, her interest was stirred. She decided that she wanted to work with people, specifically in healthcare. Yet she also felt that the medical profession didn’t sufficiently take into account the psychological aspects of patient care – which is sometimes still the case today, she adds.

Ehlert went off to the University of Trier, where she studied psychology and sociology. But practical work always remained a part of her life, says Ehlert, who took jobs in the hospital and in psychiatric institutions during her semester breaks. When she attended an event on behavioral therapy – still a rare topic in the 1980s – she also knew which subject area she wanted to specialize in. She had little use for psychoanalytical concepts and forms of talking therapy. “I am a cognitive behavioral therapist, not a quiet, ever-patient listener,” says Ehlert. She wants to tackle issues head on, work with the patients in addressing their thought processes and achieve behavioral change.

Yesterday, her son joined her for a snow-shoe hike across the beautiful white Engadine landscape. Ehlert, who got married at 23 and had her first child a year later, now has two adult children. From early on in her career, she had her own psychiatric practice, which she ran together with her then husband, a psychiatrist. She earned her doctoral degree on schizophrenia when she was 28, and 10 years later she was habilitated at the University of Trier. Shortly after, in 1999, came the offer of a position at UZH.

Temporary neglect

Ehlert briefly ponders and then nods. In hindsight, it was certainly an exhausting time. Her husband died early, she returned to university and progressed though her academic career as a single parent. “I am someone who simply gets on with things,” she says. It’s possible that strokes of fate make you more resilient. On the other hand, she probably also benefits from good stress management. Later, in Zurich and now with a new partner and her second child, she once more lived by the maxim of “temporary neglect” – she was either with her kids and therefore didn’t need to concern herself with work, or the other way round.

Ehlert feels that a practical attitude to life and an open mind are important factors – also in academia. Looking back on her academic journey, she regards the establishment of the scientist practitioner model in academic education as one of her most important successes. The model enables doctoral candidates to engage in practical work while they write their PhD thesis. Ehlert made sure herself that she gained practical experience throughout her academic career by regularly returning to work in psychiatry. But as the director of postgraduate further education, she has succeeded in institutionalizing the link to practical work for today’s doctoral candidates. As they progress through their program, they also treat patients in stress situations, for instance at the Department of Obstetrics at the UniversityHospital Zurich, and receive further education in psychotherapy. This means that at the end of their training, junior academics are scientifically qualified via their PhD thesis and are at the same time trained psychotherapists. Ehlert herself still treats some patients at the outpatient clinic for cognitive behavioral therapy and behavioral medicine, which she is also in charge of.

An eye for beauty

And if it does all get at bit much for her? Then she heads out into the garden. Her garden in Uetikon must smell wonderful in summer. Colorful magnolias and roses mingle among the box trees. It’s not unheard of for her to turn up for a lecture with scratches all over her arms. She smiles. It was a good decision to study psychology rather than go to art school. She still has an eye for beauty. Her creativity has always remained with her, and it shows on the labels she sticks on her jars of home-made jam. “I enjoy doing it and it doesn’t look too bad either,” Ehlert says with a smile. And then she disappears into her study for another Zoom meeting – or perhaps she’s off out for a hike in the snow.


Die Autorin Simona Ryser is a freelance journalist.



“New ideas while weeding the garden”

What is the greatest discovery that has been made in your field?
The greatest finding in psycho-endocrinology is that physical processes and mental states mutually influence each other. Walter Cannon, and later Hans Selye, described the importance of hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol for managing stress. In more recent times, studies have shown that in addition to risk factors for “poor” stress management, there are also protective factors that enable a person to remain healthy despite stress.

Where are you at your most creative?
Creativity expresses itself in many aspects of life. Trailblazing scientific ideas, thinking outside the box, those things emerge during conversations with colleagues and when listening to people. But new ideas often also come to me when I’m doing something completely different. When I’m chopping onions in the kitchen, for instance, or pulling up weeds in the garden, as opposed to when I’m at my desk. Being creative with your hands comes easy when you’re out in nature – it happens all by itself, simply due to the inherent beauty of plants.

What do you do to clear your mind and think of new things?
I go out into the garden and carry out a simple task such as deadheading faded flowers or weeding between the rose bushes. If I’m not working from home, I might chat to colleagues who are also just having a coffee in the kitchen at the institute or at the outpatient clinic.

Which famous person would you like to have dinner with and why?
With Angela Merkel, for two reasons: Although I’m a Swiss citizen, there’s still a part of me that’s German, and she is clearly someone who is very good at defying many obstacles.

Three books that you would take with you to a desert island?
The laptop, then I could randomly read my way through everything and could even make notes too.

Pen or laptop?
Pencil. My handwriting is very difficult to decipher when I write with a ballpoint.

The mountains or the beach?  
Mountains, because there’s often a lake at the foot of mountains. That way I might get both mountains and beach together. As it happens, I completed my so far only lake crossing in a mountain lake (Lej da Marsch, roughly 100 m wide and 50 m long).