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The Professor Is In: Sally Dickerson

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Worry. Anxiety. Grief. The brain-body response to stress is powerful. Dyson Professor of Psychology Sally Dickerson, PhD, discusses human stress responses and ways to best mitigate potential external stressors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a highly accomplished educator and researcher, Dyson Professor of Psychology Sally Dickerson, PhD, has dedicated much of her academic research to better understanding the intersection of psychological and biological responses in the human body—in other words, the intersection between external stressors, psychological stress responses, and physical health issues.

This month, we were fortunate to be able to chat with Professor Dickerson in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as she helps us better understand why COVID-19 may differ from other stressful realities and situations, and ways to best adapt to our current reality.

How Is COVID-19 different than the more traditional stressors humans are more often exposed to?

In the context of stressors, oftentimes they have a clear beginning and a clear end. You’re preparing for an exam, or an interview, and so you’re able to anticipate not only when the stressor may happen, but also when the stressor may be over and you would be able to let your guard down a little bit. And with this (COVID-19), nobody really knows when the social distancing may be reduced. This uncertainty, and the unpredictability of the stressor, makes it a little bit different than other stressors we may more typically encounter.

Some of the work that I have done, as well as other researchers, indicates that uncontrollability is a central feature that can activate the stress response. Certainly this situation has a lot of elements of uncontrollability to it. Another thing that is different about (COVID-19) is that one of the key ways we often cope with stressors is through our social relationships and social support—and although there are a lot of interesting and innovative ways that we have now to socially connect even if we have to be physically distant, we may have to adapt and think about different ways to connect. But not being able to depend on social relationships at least in the same way that we may in the context of other stressors also adds a level of difficulty to this situation.

What are some of the best ways to help mitigate this element of uncontrollability?

Any way that you can develop control over the situation itself, for yourself, can be helpful. Practicing physical distancing, being careful about washing your hands—all of the protective measure can add an element of control—if you can’t control the situation, at least you can control your behaviors, and your response to the situation.

Engaging in activities that are restorative to you can also be really helpful. For some people, that might be getting out and taking a walk. One thing that’s been helpful for me is that my yoga studio has been holding Zoom classes and Instagram live classes. Being able to continue my yoga practice, which for me has elements of stress relief and exercise as well as a sense of community—has been really helpful. Engaging in activities that have a stress reduction component and can quiet our stress-responsive physiological systems—for example, meditation, yoga, even deep breathing; those types of activities can be beneficial in reducing the physiological activation some people may be dealing with.

Given the extraordinary nature of this situation, do you think humans will emerge more resilient than before, in the context of being able to deal with external stressors or stressful situations?

A lot of people do emerge on the other side from stressful situations more resilient. For example, stressors could lead to the development of coping skills and resources that could be applied in other stressful contexts. However, some people have vulnerabilities where that might not be the case, but certainly resiliency is a response many people have in the context of stress and trauma.

Is there anything else related to the current situation that might be useful to keep in mind?

Social connections are one of the strongest predictors of health and mortality outcomes. There was a meta-analysis that was conducted by other researchers that showed that our strong, positive social connections are as much as a protective factor in terms of mortality as smoking is a risk factor.

I think that really points to the centrality of social relationships. Anything we can do to maintain those strong positive social ties in the midst of being physically distant from each other is going to be really important in terms of long-term health.