Stress? Professor James Amirkhan Studies It
Story by Isaura Aceves
Photos from Stress and Coping Lab
If there’s something that unites everyone, it’s the shared experience of stress. We all have it and we all have different ways of coping with it.
Nestled in the corner of the third floor in the psychology building, you’ll find the small figure of James Amirkhan surrounded by piles of papers and books scattered in his office as he studies the impact of stress in different individuals.
Amirkhan has been a psychology professor and researcher on campus for over 35 years. After gaining his doctorate at UCLA, he came to Long Beach for the chance to teach and research. His research centers on the use of psychological theory to explain individual differences in stress reactions and choice of coping strategy. At first glance, what catches your eye is his kind face, but his smile and laughter lights up the room as he talks about his passion for psychology.
Originally, Amirkhan had no interest in psychology and was instead an art student. That all changed when he realized art wasn’t the right fit for him and immersed himself in the world of psychology. Through psychology, he began to explore how people dealt with stress and how it produces sickness.
“The irony of stress is that some people get sick with very little exposure to stress,” Amirkhan said. “Some people go through massive amounts of stress and they are able to stand up to it so that was a conundrum that I really kind of wanted to figure out.”
What kept him here for so many years is the drive that he found in his students compared to other students at colleges he taught. Many of the students he’s taught are first generation and are easily overwhelmed, but tafter taking time to help them, he’s come to cherish their appreciation.
Coming to CSULB, he knew that what he really wanted to do was include students as part of his research and passion for psychology. The Stress and Coping Lab was created so 12 student volunteers can work alongside Amirkhan on a research project, have the opportunity to present their work at conferences and even be co-authors in publications. Under the Stress and Coping Lab, students research the effects of stress on freshman college students, immigrants and how stress impacts undocumented students.
He sees this as a chance to explore ideas and research with students outside of the classroom.
“It felt like creating a family here on campus and that's hard on this campus because it really is a commuter school,” he said. “So you really have to work to get that kind of integrated experience.”
Senior psychology major Sarah Velasco has worked closely with Amirkhan since 2015 at the Stress and Coping Lab. Through his guidance, she has grown as a researcher and grown as a person. She says what has helped her is feeling part of a family in the lab with the other students.
“Another thing that has helped me grow in this lab is him giving us the opportunity to share our voice and have an input on important decisions,” Velasco said. “This really empowered me and made me feel like a valued member of the lab.”
Sarah Velasco and Amirkhan co-authored the research publication and discovered how undocumented students are subjected to stress overload. The demands they experience are greater than the resources available making them susceptible to stress overload that can cause physical and mental illnesses.
“If you look at the dreamer situation, they have all these new threats … under the initial DACA act they had felt kind of protected and safe,” Amirkhan said. “They now are fearing deportation [while] they have the same pressures as other students.”
As he began to explain more about undocumented students, he paused when his voice began to crack. This research hit a personal chord for him―his grandparents escaped the Armenian genocide and came to the U.S. after losing their two sons. They came in hopes for a better life and he acknowledges that without them coming here, he would never have had the opportunities he's had. He sees the courage of undocumented students in his own grandmother.
What really stood out for him from his research was that regardless of their extra burdens and stress, their grade point average was no different than other students. He hopes through his quantitative research that people can see the evidence of the suffering that many political actions may cause in people’s lives.
Amirkhan has dedicated most of his life to his students and research yet, at the age of 67, he can’t say when he’ll retire. He never imagined the joy he has felt these last couple of years with his students.
“I thought once I hit my 60s I'm out of here, you know,” he said. “But I think it's hard for me to envision giving up this job so I can't even think of a better tribute than that.”