Merced County Times Newspaper
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The Psychological Impact: We don’t want to stop having social interaction

Dr. Jennifer Howell
Dr. Jennifer Howell

Dr. Jennifer Howell, an assistant professor of Health Psychology at UC Merced, shared her perspective with the Times on the psychological effects people are experiencing in the coronavirus pandemic, and what they can do to de-stress.

“The issue with the coronavirus is where is it coming from and where is it spreading to,” Howell told the Times. “That creates uncertainty which leads to worry and anxiety and can make us do crazy things like stockpiling toilet paper and listening to the news every five minutes.

“Research suggests that when we’re unsure of things, we want control. We worry in order to try and prevent bad things from happening.

“We might typically be worried if we’re preparing for a job interview or an exam. But in this case, we can’t prepare.

“When something is unresolved, it can cause mental health consequences. It’s harder to sleep, and we might experience loneliness, anxiety and depression.

“People don’t realize how much anxiety it’s provoking. There’s nothing you can do except to wash your hands a few more times, but that can’t prevent the virus from being on some random thing you touch.

“Worry is a process of repetitive thought in some ways. Our brain is trained to keep thinking about something to keep it in the forefront of our mind so we can resolve it, and then the worry goes away. But there’s no way to resolve this, and repetitive thought without resolution causes stress.

“An example is you take the California State Bar exam one day, and you don’t find out if you passed it until four months later. There is a long period of uncertainty. One thing that helps the exam-taker feel better is mindfulness or mindful meditation. It’s the idea of living in the moment and realizing and accepting your feelings and thoughts.

“It’s recognizing what’s going on with your body — whether your heart is racing, whether you’re worried in your mind.

“The solution is to sit in it, and live with it a little bit, and accept that about yourself as you live in the moment.

“The other thing that can help is to do something, and to direct your thoughts to something mentally engaging that is challenging as well.

“There’s research on flow states showing when you are so engrossed in something that is challenging mentally that you lose track of time, it takes you away from that moment.

“Some people do puzzles, artwork, or something that causes us to solve problems creatively. It’s really important to find a way to challenge yourself mentally to make the uncertainty easier to deal with.

“We just got some data from Wuhan on how people are dealing with uncertainty. It indicates that people feel like they don’t have control, and feel uncertain. They’re showing more symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s hoped that our studies will help.

“The term ‘social distancing’ is a bad term because you can still be social.  It suggests staying home alone or isolating.

“But humans are a social species, and interacting with others can be really helpful. For example, I played a game of Scrabble with others, and it gave us all the same feeling as if you went to the break room at work and grabbed a cup of coffee with someone. We can’t be in an office and stop by each other’s desk, so we need to find other ways to connect with people. We don’t want to stop having social interaction. For example, people can cook together online or participate in a digital book club.

“It’s also a time to reach out to people who are alone. People who live alone and also people who are introverted might think that they spend a lot of time alone anyway, and might not realize the importance of being around other people. It’s good to reach out and get in touch with those people and also older people, and perhaps grab a beer together over the Internet.

“People are finding ways to keep themselves engaged. An example on the news is two people who were pretending to be on a cruise that was actually cancelled by lounging on deck chairs in their living room while playing a video showing the ocean.”

Dr. Howell  earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and a master’s degree and Ph.D from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

In her role as an assistant professor at UC Merced, she researches the intersection of social psychology and health.

Dr. Howell told the Times, “For the foreseeable future, I will be an academic researcher, figuring out what makes people tick and finding out what they can do to make it better when they have a psychological threat or get bad news.

“The field, Psychological Sciences, emphasizes empirical science which takes a research approach and uses rigorous experimentation.

“I do a lot of things ranging from researching what makes people drink alcohol to how we manage the wait for unexpected news, how we think about bad news, and how we prepare for it.

“We’ve been studying uncertainty for years now, and we’re trying to use what we’ve learned from normal periods of uncertainty to apply it to what we’re going through now.”

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