If you're feeling completely overwhelmed by COVID-19, Dr. Andrew Howell wants you to know there is plenty you can do to maintain or improve your mental health.
For the last several years, the psychology professor, along with MacEwan alum Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore (now an assistant professor at Concordia University of Edmonton) has been researching how spending time in nature and connecting with nature predicts higher well-being. The association with well-being likely reflects humans' inherent inclination to affiliate with nature and the value it affords us in the form of emotional attachments, meaning in life and appreciation of beauty. And being outside in nature, as long as physical distancing can still take place, gives us one way to be with friends and loved ones, another valued part of the human experience.
"We can make sure we are taking the time to enjoy the company of those we are with during this period of restriction," says Howell. "Backyard or greenspace visits or through-window phone calls can satisfy the need to belong, as can attending outdoor yoga classes or musical performances."
Howell studies another aspect of our functioning that places people’s values front and centre: psychological flexibility. With MacEwan students Katie Demuynck and William Stafford, he has shown that being "psychologically flexible" predicts greater well-being.
"Psychological flexibility involves an openness toward and acceptance of negative thoughts and feelings, disentangling ourselves from unhelpful thoughts, focusing upon the present, being mindful of values such as our connection with others, and acting in accordance with those values," says Howell.
His newest research looks at whether psychological flexibility predicts lower COVID-19 anxiety. (The promotion of psychological flexibility is discussed in popular books such as Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap; you can also check-out the FACE COVID video on Harris’ YouTube channel.)
New threat to belongingness
The pandemic brings a new threat to our sense of belongingness. "The human need for belongingness is fundamental," explains Howell. "Frequent, positive interactions within ongoing, mutually caring relationships strongly affect how we think, feel and behave."
But even prior to the pandemic, he says, psychological disorders have been increasing among undergraduate students; according to research, this reflects students' (and society's) tendency to place importance on extrinsic over intrinsic values. For example, valuing money and status over connections with others or personal growth. "Given the stress of the pandemic and all that goes with it (academic and career uncertainty; family strife; health concerns; financial burden; societal and political upheaval), an even higher rate of student distress is now likely."
Howell cites a recent pair of studies that show that people who 1) continue to meet their need for belongingness (as well as autonomy and competence) during the pandemic experience higher well-being, and that 2) reminding ourselves of occasions when they have been able to meet those needs increases well-being.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.