Colleen Borian: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us today! I am so excited to welcome you to Unwritten, where expert authors join student co-hosts for discussions on what COVID-19 could mean for the future of our economy, healthcare and culture.
To get us started with some quick introductions, my name is Colleen Borian and I am a student at University of Alabama studying public relations and communication studies as well as a Pearson Campus Ambassador.
I am joined today by Laura Howe, the VP of Innovation Communications for Pearson who will be moderating our live Q&A. Get your questions ready and put them into the question box within the Control Panel and we will get to those in about 15 minutes.
I would also like to welcome Professors Dr. Lisa Shin and Dr. Samuel Sommers, coauthors of ‘Invitation to Psychology’. Dr. Shin earned her PhD in psychology at Harvard University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
She has also been on the faculty at Tufts University since 1998, where she is currently the chair of the Psychology Department. Dr. Shin’s research involved examining brain function and cognitive processing and patients with anxiety disorders, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Sommers earned his PhD in Psychology at the University of Michigan and has been a Professor of Psychology at Tufts University since 2003. He is a social psychologist whose research examines issues related to intergroup relations, group composition and diversity, stereotyping and bias, and the intersection of psychology and law.
Dr. Sommers teaches courses in experimental psychology, social psychology, and psychology and law and also team teaches introduction to psychology with Dr. Shin.
We want to begin each of these conversations by turning it over to our author experts for a two minute hot take on the most important thing that people should know right now about what’s happening in our COVID change world.
Dr. Shin and Dr. Sommers, please give us your hot take.
Dr. Lisa Shin: Psychological concepts or topics that are applicable to the current COVID-19 crisis. And our first concept is called reappraisal. Reappraisal refers to thinking about an event or a situation in a different way. Reappraisal is one good way to regulate your emotion and it’s also an important component of cognitive behavioral therapy.
We are all feeling anxiety and fear right now and that’s normal. It’s part of the fight or flight response. But when it gets to be too much, we can help ourselves by reappraising our current situation in several ways, such as by reminding ourselves that quarantines and physical distancing, though difficult, will help save lives. And quarantines can allow us to spend more time with loved ones, our loved ones in the same household, but also the pandemic can bring us closer together with others emotionally, even if not always physically.
Now, the second concept in psychology I wanted to talk about is control. Researchers have studied locus of control for decades and the evidence suggests that preserving your sense of control has psychological and physical benefits. So although we can’t control the virus just yet, we can control our own behavior, such as by washing our hands, distancing ourselves from others physically while still maintaining close relationships and by helping others at least remotely, like by ordering groceries, supplies, raising funds to provide food or equipment for healthcare workers. And by continuing our daily routines and accomplishing what we can, even if it’s not what we typically can accomplish during normal circumstances.
The third concept I wanted to touch on is the relationship between stress and immunity. Psychoneuroimmunology research has shown that chronically elevated stress and worry are associated with diminished immune system responses and that’s the opposite of what we want right now during a pandemic.
Fortunately there are things we can do. There is some research evidence that practices like yoga, mindfulness, meditation and taichi can help us reduce our feelings of stress and also improve our immune system responses and getting enough sleep can help us with this too.
And then finally I wanted to mention telehealth. Telehealth is a way for patients to access healthcare remotely, such as by telephone or video conferencing or other ways on the Internet of connecting. Recent research has shown that therapy provided via telehealth can reduce our symptoms of depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder and can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy.
So those are my thoughts and I am going to turn it over to Sam who can add his own.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Sure! Thank you, Lisa! Society right now is focused on physical health and that is as it should be; good hygiene for washing hands, navigating the grocery store, whether and how to disinfect food delivery. But I do want to urge us to not forget about social hygiene and that’s going to be my focus here this afternoon.
First, I will talk a little about the positive side of social connection. We are all familiar by now with the idea of social distancing, but don’t forget that what we are really talking about when we say social distancing is physical distancing, because we humans are inherently social animals and even with physical distance, we still need to prioritize our social connections.
That’s why you see residents from an Italian apartment complex singing together at night on their balconies or American high schoolers parking their cars in circles at a parking lot to catch up at a safe distance and be, well, regular high schoolers.
Just click like on videos like these on social media, follow their lead, be creative and turn your biweekly work lunch that you used to have into a peanut butter and jelly Zoom meeting, reach out to your old friends or your remote family members on social media, Skype, text or, shudder the thought, actually go old school, pick up a phone and dial the phone number.
Social support can be a buffer against many of the mental health issues and stress and immune responses that Lisa just talked about, take advantage of this and if you see people deprived of this type of social connection, the house-bound older neighbor living on their own, try to extend this kind of support in their direction the best that you can.
Alas there is also darker side towards social tendencies, one that we should think about during this time and research tells us that during an era of uncertainty and threat, racism and other forms of bias increase. We have already seen this in the spike in hate speech and crimes targeting Asian-Americans and in the way that people, including political leaders, are referring to this virus.
So the message that we want to leave you with here today is don’t, don’t do that, don’t let the uncertainty and the stress of the current crisis lead you down the darker avenue of human tendency. If you see someone else talking or posting or acting in a biased manner, stand up, say something, doing nothing sends the wrong signal. Instead, what you need to do is establish an immediate and clear norm that rejects this type of prejudice and hatred.
Even if your reaction doesn’t change the thoughts and behaviors of the party in question, it sends a lot of explicit message to everyone else, the target of bias and those who are observing it that this is not okay, that we reject this type of behavior. At the end of the day we need to remember that we are quite literally all in this thing together.
So thanks for joining us and we will be happy to answer questions and have further conversation about these issues with you.
Colleen Borian: So thank you both for your hot takes. I really like that we are also touching on the mental and social health as well as physical health during this time.
So let’s get right into some of the questions, just about the state of psychology during the pandemic, starting with what are some of the psychological hurdles that we will have to overcome in order to reopen society, things like getting over a fear of crowds?
Dr. Samuel Sommers: That’s a great question. I think we should be looking forward and Lisa, you can jump in and add here as well, but to me, I guess one of the main things that I think about are social norms, the unwritten rules that govern our social behavior, they are very strong influences on how we think and interact with one another. And we have actually seen social norms change dramatically in a very short period of time.
It used to be okay to be two or three feet away from a stranger at a grocery store as you walk by them; now it’s not. And so that’s changed very quickly and we are going to have to deal with hopefully at some point and hopefully not in the too distant future how do we overcome those changes and norms and to what degree do they stay in place, to what degree do those change. That’s something we are really going to have to wrestle with.
It’s unusual that norms change quite this drastically and this quickly in a society the way that they have in the current pandemic and that’s something I think we are going to have to confront. If and when we get to the point gradually or otherwise that we would have to reopen some aspects of society and return to some of the “normalcy” that we are used to.
Dr. Lisa Shin: I guess I would add, yeah, I would add that once the virus is better controlled people may still be understandably really afraid of going into crowds, even when the risk is decreased; hopefully that will happen soon. But if there are folks who develop sort of the fear or even a phobia of going into crowds once the virus is controlled, then there are techniques, exposure techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy that could help get folks who are still hesitant to be a bit more comfortable to be around other people.
But again, I am referring to a time after the danger has largely passed and I don’t think that time is now.
Colleen Borian: Definitely! I think that’s really helpful and I know that we are all looking forward to that time, but it’s important to think about the impacts that we will have to overcome when it comes.
So as students a lot of us are missing out on major life milestones, whether it’s graduation, summer internships, family events or study abroad and obviously a lot of people are really upset by it.
So I have read some articles online that say some of these feelings are actually a form of grief, is that true?
Dr. Lisa Shin: I mean I would say -- I mean yes, you can think of it that way, because grief comes after experiencing a loss and usually when people use the term grief, they are talking about loss of a loved one, but I suppose this could be some type of loss as well if you can't now go to graduation or have family events and weddings and so forth. So yeah, I am not sure that it’s important to label that feeling as grief, but you can also -- you can think of it that way and you can also think of it as an expectancy violation, right, and humans don’t like expectancy violations.
When we expect to do something, like have a graduation or whatever it is, and that gets violated, it gets taken away, humans don’t like that, especially when it’s something good that was expected and is not going to happen, and that’s understandable.
And this is when reappraisal, which I talked about earlier, can maybe come in to help and we can try to remind ourselves why these events are canceled and/or rescheduled, right? It’s to avoid a public health crisis and so that seems like a very good reason so we have to keep telling ourselves that there is a really good reason for these cancellations.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Yeah, I mean I will just add quickly, I think it is possible to both be experiencing this as a real form of grief all the while recognizing that other people in this crisis are dealing with even more acute and literally life-and-death forms of grief and that those of us who are primarily feeling disrupted by the lack of those kinds of routines that we have just discussed are privileged to have those as our primary concerns and not necessarily how will I survive and pay the rent check this month or feed my children or continue to work as a first line responder at a grocery store, at an emergency room or what have you, but that doesn’t make the experiences of those of us who are not on the front lines like that less psychologically impactful. I think it’s possible to do both.
As Lisa was suggesting, to recognize that this is a form of grief and loss and sort of mourning what is it that we are losing in our childhood or adulthood or whatever stage of life we are at, and at the same time recognize the sacrifices and grief that other people are encountering and at the same time recognize that we are both almost paradoxically grieving and somewhat privileged by certain status in life for some of us. So I think it’s complicated and all those things are at play.
Colleen Borian: Yeah, what really sit out to me is just kind of talking about maybe one situation versus another and even though they might be different or there is more privilege in one of them doesn’t mean that the psychological impact is less and I think that’s a really important thing for people to hear.
So Dr. Shin, you studied anxiety and PTSD extensively. A lot of people in our country were struggling with mental health issues even before COVID, but how is this environment exuberating those issues?
Dr. Lisa Shin: Right. I think the current crisis is making it worse for folks who are already struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and contamination fears, depression and other forms of anxiety. So yes, I mean I think that the current crisis is making everyone anxious and everyone experiencing a fight or flight response and so when you add that on top of preexisting issues, yes, definitely I think that this is making it more difficult for folks.
But remember it’s okay to feel anxious, it’s okay to feel the fight or flight response; in fact, that’s sort of normal, and it’s okay to reach out for help. So folks should feel free to reach out to their families, but also to their healthcare providers via telehealth like I mentioned, just pick up the phone and call your healthcare provider, whether you have a psychologist or a psychiatrist already or whether you talk to your internal medicine specialist and then go from there.
So I think that there are solutions, we just sometimes maybe have to be a little bit more creative in trying to get access to care, because it’s not the case that we can just sort of drive to the doctor and sit in the waiting room like would normally happen in the past.
Colleen Borian: Yeah. Those are some great tips and I think we are all really lucky to be able to have so many of the resources that we now have say if this happened 50 years ago.
So Dr. Sommers, you actually wrote a book called 'Your Brain on Sports' all about how sports and human behavior are intertwined. Are there any lessons that we can learn from sports about how to cope or manage the current situation and most importantly, you wrote a whole chapter in the book about what the T-Shirt Cannon can actually teach us about human nature.
Is there anything to learn from the T-Shirt Cannon that relates to COVID behavior?
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Interesting question! Yeah, I mean the book was about that sports is life and we can learn a lot about human nature from the world of sports and again, we were just talking about mourning and grieving and there are people who are big sports fans who mark the calendar and the passage of the months by what time of the year it is, it’s Kentucky Derby time or Indianapolis 500 time or the Masters or the March Madness and college football and so forth. So that’s a very real change for the routine for many people.
Yeah, we wrote a chapter in that book on the T-Shirt Cannon that shoots off free T-shirts at sports arenas and why people will fight people each other tooth and nail for a T-shirt that they could buy for $12 somewhere with a garish corporate logo and yet they will go after that like it’s incredibly valuable, and there is a lot that goes into the psychology of the T-shirt Cannon but one of the principles in scarcity.
There is only a certain number of T-shirts. If everyone was going to get a T-shirt, you sit there and you wait and you get a T-shirt, but there is only five, or ten, or twenty and that makes it seem very valuable and you are seeing the psychology of scarcity play itself out in different ways during the current crisis from people understandably being panicked about not having certain kinds of masks or respirators and so forth, and then of course solving that problem by making their own.
Or even just the toilet paper phenomenon of the degree to which you can’t find toilet paper in stores right now, in shelves in many stores because certain things are not picking up the label of scarce and toilet paper is one. I think hair dye is now becoming another one, and so when something becomes scarce, you suddenly realize how much you kind of need it, and so at that level, even though the book takes sort of a light heart and look at scarcity there, scarcity plays an important psychological role for us in real life and more serious scenarios too.
Colleen Borian: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think it’s cool to see the connection between something like you mentioned in the book. It’s a little bit more light-hearted to how it’s playing out in society today. So this is a question for both of you. But as a psychologist, what surprised you the most and how people in the United States have reacted to the situation?
Dr. Lisa Shin: Yeah, I think this is how I would like -- yeah, I would like to have more time to think about this, but one thing I guess that surprised me at least early on, not as much now is the reluctance of some people to comply with quarantine orders actually. So last month I would say maybe mid-March, there were several stories in the news about organizations’ meeting, despite orders to the contrary and those meetings ended up, leading to many more people found ill and unfortunately passing away. It just -- it was shocking to me that folks tended to think that they could just continue -- continue associating with people in close quarters. So that would be mine, I guess, although I am sure I am thinking about it more, I would have other ideas as well, but I am sure Sam has some thoughts too.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Well, I mean, I can be back on that. I think it’s sort of the bimodal distribution of it, both ends of this. So on the one hand even like this week people protesting in states like Michigan and elsewhere in large numbers and close quarters about stay at home restriction, they need to explain some of these things. You have to think about the different information were exposed to the echo chambers that current political discourse occurs in and that people are - some people are exposed to one set of information, other people are exposed to another set of information that includes skepticism about science and data and conspiracy theory and it becomes at some level -- these things become self-fulfilling, but if we want to positive spin on it, I think we could also talk about the surprise of -- think about where we were five weeks ago in the society, six weeks ago in the society. If I had told you that by early or mid-April, schools would have -- they will shut down, restaurants would have stopped, people would have stopped going to bars, you will have to order your food through pick-up and curbside service, people will be seeing their clinicians through Telehealth that just we would have a drastic rewriting and rewiring of the social connectivity and code in our society in that shorter period of time, I don’t think a lot of people would believe that. I don’t think a lot of us will recognize our society today from six, seven weeks ago.
So I think that Lisa is right, that sort of recalcitrant still not going to change the way we are doing things, mindset can be a little bit jarring and surprising and then we take a step back and think about just how quickly and how seriously and severely are norms and even explicit guidelines have changed in some respect, that’s pretty shocking in its own right.
So the whole thing is really quite striking from a psychological standpoint. When we have, if we have the bandwidth to step back and think about it, we will go that way.
Dr. Lisa Shin: I guess I have one other thought too is, I have been surprised presently by the number of people who have stepped up to help other people, and in particular about colleagues of mine in psychiatric neuroscience who are researchers, but have set aside their research and have agreed -- they are suddenly now on ICU awards, helping out, helping with the nurses, and that -- that’s just amazing and surprising and great and just a very positive thing.
Colleen Borian: Yeah, that’s awesome, and I love that you both point out the positive things, and Dr. Shin, that’s awesome to hear and I think we all can recognize all of the sacrifices that the whole country has made, but especially those people on the frontline who are putting aside, there are other things to help out anyone in need.
So we do want to take some questions from the viewers who joined us. So I am now going to send it over to Laura for some questions that have been coming in from our audience.
Laura Howe: All right! Thanks so much Colleen! So we have a lot of questions coming in, people are kind of coming in hot on the questions here, so a lot of really interesting ones.
So the first sort of group of questions that I want to pose to you all, has to do with people kind of writing and asking what they are feeling or experiencing now is normal, right? So we’ve had people mention a lot of different things that now kind of freak them out a little bit that maybe wouldn’t have bothered them before.
So somebody mentioned grocery stores getting crowded. Somebody else mentioned they are little freaked out by touching door handles. And so the question is, if -- is it normal to be sort of bothered by things that normally would have been pretty mundane before all of this stuff started?
Dr. Lisa Shin: I would say the short answer is, yes. That’s totally normal. Because these are real threats right now and it makes sense for us to be oriented about and vigilant concerning these real threats. So I think that yes, it is totally normal.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Yeah, I think right. Almost everything goes in this scenario where we are. I had people asking questions about, I am really concerned about like screen time in my kids, and I mean, I get that, and I am a parent too, but I mean, people were in a pandemic, I think one of the lessons that is really important from a psychological standpoint is I think we need to give ourselves a bit of a break. I think we need to recognize what’s going on right now.
When I deal with students who are concerned about their grades and when I get it and there’s things I get why normalcy is somewhat of a solace to have that, to worry about, but it’s okay, give yourself a break when you miss a deadline, give yourself a break if you are a little bit less patient with your partner or your friends in the ordinary eye. I think that -- that it’s understandable under the current circumstances.
Now don’t get me wrong, we still need to think about people’s reactions that are impairing and problematic, they might need some sort of clinical intervention, but I do think one of the morals of this from a psychological standpoint is that we -- we need to give ourselves a bit of a break.
Laura Howe: So one interesting question that someone asked was about how long the psychological effects of something like this actually lasts, and they referenced their grandparents who went through the great depression and they still don’t trust banks and they don’t want to throw away leftovers after a meal and this all -- this stuff hangs on with people, it sort of sticks in the collective psyche.
I guess, my question is, are we all going to be 85-years-old still wiping down our groceries when they come in the house, like how long does this stuff stay with us?
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Well good.
Dr. Lisa Shin: Yeah, go ahead Sam, go first.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Well, I just I think, I can tell what you were going to say as well, which is good researchers often give the answer, that’s an empirical question. That’s a great question we all know.
The word “acute”, in an acute response phase right now where people are watching viral videos from physicians that tell them they need to soak all their fruit and wipe down all their groceries, and we are going to figure this out, and science is going to help us figure this out. But we don’t know. It may very well have some lasting effects on us.
You know what, maybe some of the affects will be positive too, maybe we will learn to appreciate some of the things we don’t -- that we take it for granted. Maybe we will learn that some things actually can be efficient to happen online, like therapy and other meetings that perhaps we used to not feel we could do that way. I don’t know. Lisa, what -- what are your thoughts?
Dr. Lisa Shin: No, I guess, I -- I would agree with everything that you said it. I mean, it’s an empirical question, and some behaviors will just change once the virus is controlled, right, and what we needed anymore.
But it’s really hard to know how things will -- will stay, stay around. Some behaviors might stay around, and like Sam said, that maybe a good thing. Washing your hands before you eat is probably a good practice that you might want to retain going forward.
Laura Howe: That’s whole we were all doing that before too.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Well, we need to not let the legacy of this psychologically be the negative, the dark side to this. We need to not, after September 11 there were some dark psychological legacy of how people responded to -- to those attacks in terms of discourse and hate crimes. We need to not let this be that. We need to be on alert for the idea that sometimes again threat and disruption can lead us down some bad passages that we don’t necessarily want to go or need to go.
This can actually be -- it’s going to be a unified moment, not to trivialize this, but this is our -- this is where aliens are attacking the planet at the moment. I mean, this is a different kind of threat, this is an opportunity to come together scientifically in the pursuit of the vaccine, scientifically in the pursuit of a lot of other answers that we are asking right now. Hopefully, we can have legacy of this be a positive one.
Laura Howe: so there is a lot of questions coming in sort of different forms, asking for tips or things that people can do to help others they see sort of struggling or in stress, so there is a number -- it’s -- it’s -- number of faculty on -- on the call who are watching, asking how they can support their students, which is great. People asking how they can best sort of emotionally and psychologically support First Responders and medical personnel, your neighbor who is a nurse, your neighbor who is a doctor, that kind of thing. So what can people really do to support others in their household or in their community who are struggling?
Dr. Lisa Shin: A great question. I think I guess I have a number of ideas. So I have seen on social media, GoFundMe pages and other -- other sort of drives for raising money or support for doctors and nurses, other healthcare providers, First Responders. So we can use social media for good to do that and it’s -- a lot of people have access to social media and so can do that pretty easily.
Other ways to help others, obviously just listening to each other, communicating, reaching out, grabbing the phone and calling someone can -- can help, just to know that you have that social connection, you have that social support because I think that Sam said earlier social support is such an important buffer, and then we can help each other by actually seeking out information that’s sort of data-driven. So there are various websites.
For example, folks with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and contamination fears or if you know people with those fears, one can consult with the OCD Foundation website and there I am sure are some guidelines now that are being posted on that site but other sites as well, as to sort of how to deal with the pandemic. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies also has information. ADAA or Anxiety Disorders and Depression also has information. So we can also disseminate empirically supported sort of ways of dealing with the crisis, and Sam, did you have other -- you probably do have other things.
Dr. Samuel Sommers: I echo and I second all of that. I mean I think I would say just sort of briefly as an add-on, we can just be human, like I think that that’s important. I think that whether that means checking on your -- again, your elderly neighbor down the street who you know may not feel comfortable going to the grocery store and putting a note in the mailbox, under the door and say, I am going to the store tomorrow, do you need anything or you ask about professors, teachers and students.
So Lisa and I are teaching Inter-Psyche right now. We ask couple hundred first year students mostly in our Inter-Psyche class. We are recording lecture and we have spent -- I think each lecture tried to spend 5 or 10 minutes at the start or in the middle or at the end, checking in with each other, asking how each other is doing, being honest with the students.
I’m not sleeping that well. I feel like I have depressed mood. I am not that -- my appetite is not what it was. I mean, I -- I think being human and telling people that we are going through those things as well, talking to each other about it, telling them it’s okay when they are feeling those things and talking to them about them as well.
We spent time in our class trying to point out some of the relevance of what we cover in the material to the current crisis. I think everything -- everything changes with the current crisis and acknowledging that and being a human being and being one to be flexible and to listen is ecstatic, I think that’s hugely important.
Laura Howe: All right! That’s a great one to end on. So Colleen, I am going to send it back to you to wrap this up.
Colleen Borian: Thanks Laura! So thank you so much for your time, Dr. Shin and Dr. Sommers and I would also like to thank everybody who joined us today.
I found this conversation extremely helpful and took away a lot of great things and I hope it was just as insightful for all of you as it was for me.
Please look out for our next episode on Thursday, April 23 with UCLA Statistics and Data Science Professor, Rob Gould, hosted by a fellow Campus Ambassador and my friend Delaney Henson of University of Louisville.
Hope you all stay safe and be well. Thank you!
Dr. Samuel Sommers: Excellent!