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Vassar Professor Says Positive Emotions Will Help With Resiliency In COVID-19 Crisis

Dr. Michele Tugade, Psychological Science professor and director of the Affective Science Laboratory at Vassar College
Courtesy of Dr. Michele Tugade/Vassar College
Dr. Michele Tugade, Psychological Science professor and director of the Affective Science Laboratory at Vassar College

Dr. Michele Tugade’s research focuses on the function of positive emotions in the coping process. She says humans are well equipped with internal tools, readily available to help us be resilient and overcome the stresses and anxieties caused by the global COVID-19 crisis. Tugade is a professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, where she directs the Affective Science Laboratory, investigating the science of emotions, coping and resilience. She spoke with WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne.

What I'm interested in in my work is to see whether positive emotions have a capacity to help fuel resilience. So our bodies and when we're experiencing stress, the heightened levels of stress that we're experiencing, our bodies activate the sympathetic nervous system. Our blood pressure increases, our heart rate increases, respiration increases and what this is doing is preparing our bodies for action. And in this way, negative emotions are actually quite useful. It draws our attention to what we need to focus on it. It gives us information about how to solve problems at that moment. But what positive emotions do, it also has a very important function, and it gives our bodies the time to restore and recover and replenish after this heightened level of stress. We need to give our bodies that time and so what positive emotions do is it helps us recover from that sympathetic activation, allowing us that pause a breather so that we can build up our resilience muscle in some way, so that we can cope more effectively with the stressors that are constantly coming our way. Social connection is something that's very important. When we experience negative emotions like stress and anxiety that actually activates our desire to connect with other individuals. It's one of our greatest human strengths, is to help and to give and to connect in ways that is so important to us. We want to comfort other individuals when we're feeling stress, and we want to be comforted ourselves. What this is doing is activating a hormone called oxytocin. And it's a stress hormone but at the same time, it signals our desire to connect. In the time of this global pandemic, however we are faced with a challenge of not having the usual outlets for connection like hugging others, being close, and having this togetherness that we our bodies actually crave. So what we need to do now is come up with innovative and creative ways of connecting with others. And I've seen this happening in a number of different ways. People are being very creative, using technology, for example. So people are using Zoom or Skype or FaceTime to have virtual happy hours, virtual dinners, virtual coffee sessions. There's also, people are talking about doing game nights, and dance classes, or yoga classes. So there's a way to connect and feel connected to others. I’ve also seen symphonies happening, which is such a beautiful way to elicit positive emotions and connectedness in a way that we can't do in our everyday face to face world that we had been living in. So what this does is it allows us to actually down regulate the stress that we're experiencing with a global pandemic. When we're connecting with others, it helps to down regulate, or help people recover from the heightened blood pressure or cortisol levels that are elevated. It also has a natural anti-inflammatory effect. So one of the consequences of that it helps people feel less pain, and it reduces any cardiovascular damage or stress that's elicited from the stress of cardiovascular ramp up during stressful experiences.

You've studied positive emotions post 9/11. And maybe you could talk about that and how that compares to now.

A lot of people are making the connection now or at least it brings to mind 9/11 because this was something that was completely unexpected, and unpredicted. What we were doing at that time, we were in the middle of a study, I was collecting data in graduate school and in the midst of that 9/11 happened. And what we were able to do was to track people's emotions before and after this national tragedy. What we found was, even in the midst of this heightened levels of stress and anxiety and adversity, some individuals were able to report positive emotions like gratitude for their loved ones. Love for people that they cared about, an interest in what was happening in the world. So people who are able to experience positive emotions, even in the midst of this tragedy had better outcomes, months later. They had shorter durations of depression, fewer depression symptoms, and they were more optimistic about their ability to cope with future stressors. And that's important, that optimism to cope is important because we're seeing it now people are reflecting back, how did they get through that? If they were able to get through that, perhaps they can utilize the same strategies in the world we're living in today.

Will you be looking to do the same with this pandemic?

Yeah, we're looking at how people are responding in the midst of stress. So looking at what are the positive emotions that are elicited? If we ask people to cultivate experiences of gratitude, what are some of the outcomes? What are they doing naturally, in the face of this event? Are they connecting with others with humor, you know, sharing funny jokes or memes, or are they connecting and eliciting greater and deeper connections with loved ones and their partners, etc. So seeing what people are doing naturally and measuring outcomes and their ability to cope down the line as a follow up would be great.

Are you witnessing anything that you're finding you know, I don't know interesting or perhaps a telltale sign of something anything that pops up?

Well, what the research shows is that people who experience gratitude during high levels of stress, and this has been followed in response to natural disasters, constant exposure to war, of campus tragedies, etc. They have lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. And it's also possible that people who elicit positive emotions are able to cultivate positive emotions in times like what we're living in now, perhaps they'll come out with greater what's called post-traumatic growth. So rather than experiencing downturns and negative consequences from this tragic event, or this global pandemic, they come out of it stronger, they have a positive change as a result of the struggle in response to this major life crisis. So it's possible that people who are cultivating positive emotions like gratitude now, will have a greater sense of new opportunities in their lives. They might have a deeper sense of their relationships, a change in their relationships with others. They may increase their own perceptions of their personal strength, or their coping ability for other events that are coming in their future. And they may have a greater appreciation for life in general. They may deepen their belief systems, for example, and have a greater connection with their community. And so that's probably one of the outcomes that we're hoping to see with people who are actually cultivating positive emotions in this particular environment.

And I also just wanted to ask you, because you did just talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, and who is that likely to affect in this realm? And then obviously, early intervention is key, but how does one access the resources? How does one even recognize that he or she may be, you know, on the road to or in some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder? You know, obviously, this would affect people who are losing loved ones, you know, in the hospital and mass burials and things of that nature.

Yeah. And that is one of the unfortunate outcomes is that this is a tragedy. This is something that is a struggle for everyone. Across the globe, people are suffering. And those who are losing their loved ones are at heightened risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. If they are able to cultivate even these minor moments. The power of positive emotions, I think, it’s very profound. They're easily accessible, if one pays attention. They don't require a lot of effort. So there's been studies that have looked at people who are bereaved from partners who they've lost, who suffered from AIDS, for example, this is where from UCSF, they found that people who are able to find positive meaning in the events or even just know As these minor elements in their environment that elicit positive emotions like the sun is out, or the flowers are blooming, because it's spring, individuals who are able to pay attention to the positive emotions that are around them, even in the midst of very, very trying circumstances, they are able to manage the depression that may elicit down the line. So that's one way to consider this as an intervention that people are activating at this time to provide protective resources or a buffer towards long term, maladaptive consequences.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention? Michelle?

I think that one of the things that we're starting to see that there's a lot of global and national cooperation and compassion, I think that's really important to consider in these particularly trying times. So allowing individuals to understand that we have common humanity, that we're all in this together. We’re all experiencing this type of suffering. But to acknowledge that with acceptance rather than resistance is one way that to have a resilient mindset, to be able to recognize that these will ultimately become redemptive moments that can define us. So to have empathy for other people's sufferings, to be able to turn negative events into positive outcomes, and also to have pro-social goals like helping other individuals. The generosity that we're seeing is one way to signal our gratitude to other individuals and love the collective applause that we see in New York City and other communities to thank those who are on the front lines, who are working very hard and sacrificing for us. It gives us a signal of who we can trust, and that we can trust our community for greater cohesion and resilience down the line.

Dr. Michelle Tugade is a professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Poughkeepsie, based Vassar College, where she directs the affective science laboratory. Reporting from WAMC’s Hudson Valley bureau on the campus of Vassar College, I'm Hudson Valley bureau chief Allison Dunne.

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