Dr. Amy Corbett (above, center) created an applied learning opportunity with layers of benefits for her Applied Psychology students.
In many ways, atypical situations are to psychological research what new ingredients are to recipes: gamechangers. We are fortunate to live in an atypical world.
Unfortunately, as any experienced researcher will tell you, there are challenges to research involving atypical situations.
It is especially true with studies involving crises. The challenge for researchers is that it is unethical to create a crisis for the sake of research, or the participants in a study. That could be psychologically harmful.
Very little was typical about the Spring 2020 Semester and the pandemic situation that split it down the middle. But Dr. Amy Corbett found a silver lining. She designed an applied learning experience to take advantage of the very atypical experiences she and her students were sharing.
“My research focused on student levels of stress, anxiety, and depression both before and after a practice intervention during this pandemic, explains Dr. Corbett.
“That intervention was either in the form of mindful meditation, or cognitive restructuring. We also had a control group who did neither of the interventions in order to compare our findings.”
For the research, Dr. Corbett and her students measured stress, anxiety, and depression as separate perceptions, or states of being. Though the three are often grouped together, each is distinct. Symptoms of stress and anxiety are more likely to fluctuate over the course of a day or week; depression symptoms may take longer to change. These are important distinctions given the quick turnaround time of the research, which was based on only a one week intervention.
Learn more about Dr. Corbett's Research
The assignment for students in the meditation group was clear cut: to meditate. The impact of meditation on levels of stress, anxiety, and meditation was their gauge.
Those in the cognitive restructuring group had a cerebral task. Their participation involved thinking of a personally stressful or frustrating experience, and completing a worksheet. Students picked one aspect of their lives each day that was bothering them and was out of their control. They didn’t disclose the “thing” – they were asked instead to identify the emotions and feelings it provoked.
Then they were prompted to restructure their thinking. They answered questions like “what evidence do you have (or not have) to rationally support your feelings?” and “what alternative thoughts might counteract your stress/anxiety/depression?” The aim was to chart kneejerk reactions, and move on to more logical interpretations. The goal of the worksheet is to help identify what they can control about their situation.
A big piece of finding ways to cope is addressing the “what if?” In situations without a clear solution the “what if” can be overwhelming.
“That’s part of why we decided to use two different applications in our active groups,” says Dr. Corbett. One (meditation) deals with addressing physical and emotional feelings in a physical and emotional way.”
“The other (cognitive restructuring) deals with looking at the way you interpret your experiences; it all relates back to controlling your feelings, but also understanding what is making you feel a certain way and restructuring your thinking.”
Looking to the Future
There are layers of benefits to this type of study. One relates to the current stress, anxiety, and possibly even depression participants may be currently experiencing. It is also relevant to the themes Dr. Corbett tries to touch on in her research. They include timeliness, worldwide relevance and application, and resilience.
This is true from a research point of view, as well as through a therapeutic lens. Gaining knowledge about coping strategies is the focus of the study. Actually coping in the time of the study brings its own value. Meditation and cognitive restructuring push in that direction.
For students, Dr. Corbett thinks learning about these techniques and how research is conducted is a professional benefit.
“Many of our students go into work in the community and not-for-profit sectors. A lot of the research they’ll be doing will directly support the programs they are working with, and require securing funding for those programs.”
“It can be a challenge of the system they’re entering. There is an opportunity for them to use a study like this in their field to achieve positive outcomes. That is another huge benefit. This is very applicable to them.”
Making research relevant is important. If there is a sense of connection to the topic at hand, there is a greater chance of buy-in among participants. There is also a higher likelihood the subject matter could reappear in a professional environment. Research on marijuana use, for example, and its impact on psychological symptoms, are topics of discussion in Dr. Corbett’s classes because of the relevant nature of the subject.
“It is important to know no matter what the environment out there looks like, there are bigger worlds. There is our larger world, the Coby world, the Psychology world… each has its own trends. What I try to do is incorporate the relevant ones into my psychology courses.”
Findings from Dr. Corbett’s research are included below. The information shows the average score of participating students on stress , anxiety, and/or depression, as well as how much or how little that symptom decreased after intervention.
Negative numbers refer to an increase in a particular symptom. This study used worksheets and valued assessments to determine numerical values.
Participating Student Testimonials: Meditation Group
- I believe this intervention was useful for me personally because it gave me another method of self-care to consider. I never would’ve thought about meditating if I wasn’t put into the meditation group. I meditated before bed most and it really improved my sleep and my mood. I may continue.
- I really enjoyed this assignment. I would have never practiced mediation on my own, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I am a really fast paced person and never find time to just sit down and breathe in my regular daily life. It was shocking to me how much just breathing can relieve high stress levels even if it is just for a few minutes. I think (a) meditation app would be really helpful to all college students when you have a lot of stressful assignments due, along with the other obligations in your life.
Participating Student Testimonials: Cognitive Restructuring Group
- I believe the intervention was useful because it broke up my routine. My usual routine was not good for me mentally because I was suppressing everything I felt due to the situation. Cognitive restructuring forced me to think about what I was feeling and begin to deal with it.
- The intervention made me really think about each thing that stresses me out in a more positive light. It seemed to help me really think about each thing that was happening in my life, and truly accept that I can’t control the situations that may be causing stress. I felt that it was very useful and helped relieve some of my stress in general.
- I found cognitive restructuring useful because I am an over-thinker. It allows me to keep my mind running, but turn the racing thoughts into productive results. I do not think I would’ve seen any change had I been in the meditation group, because I have never been successful at “shutting” off my mind in similar exercises.