Coping with the COVID-19 crisis

Pensive woman working on her laptop at home

We were team-teaching Intro Psychology in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US and suddenly shut down everything, including our campus. As we shifted to remote instruction, we stumbled upon a format that seemed to work well for our class. We started each recorded lecture with a quick check-in, asking each other simple questions like, “Are you doing OK with all this?” and “How are you coping?”

This wasn’t part of some grand pedagogical plan. Rather, it was invention born from necessity. It was an instinctual human reaction to unprecedented circumstances. Our students kept emailing to say they really appreciated these informal and personal moments, which humanized the lectures, normalized their own responses to the crisis, and helped bridge the newfound physical distance between them and us. It seemed to be what they needed at that point in time. And we soon came to realize that we probably needed it as much as they did.

Elizabeth Redden’s July 13 article outlines the mental health costs and needs of college students during the crisis. Over the past several months, we’ve seen a lot of this firsthand with our classes (admittedly via email and Zoom). And, while neither of us are trained as clinicians, we do believe that the psychological science that we teach has lessons to offer our students in their daily efforts to navigate this crisis.

That was our motivation in putting together a new course this summer (to be repeated this fall), titled The Science of Coping. In the course, we’re combining discussion, guest speakers, and mini-lectures to cover a range of topics including:

  • using critical thinking to assess new research findings and public health recommendations
  • how stress affects the body and how mindfulness can help
  • the importance of social connection
  • how sleep, nutrition, and exercise influence the immune system
  • the psychology of conspiracy theories
  • control and emotional regulation
  • how to use social norms to change health attitudes and behaviors
  • the effectiveness of telehealth and remote therapy
  • bias and prejudice during times of threat
  • strategies for remote learning and managing distractions

The major assignment of the semester requires students to keep a coping journal. Each week they have to select one potential coping strategy, implement it, and then take a critical look back at what worked and what didn’t. Our hope is that the course provides students with academic and intellectual insight into the scientific literature on these topics, but also that it provides them with some concrete strategies that they can take for a test run and possibly incorporate into their daily lives moving forward.

There’s a selfish component in all of this for us as well. Instructors also need something good to focus on during a crisis. Has preparing a new course this summer been stressful? Absolutely. But it has also been a welcome distraction and something productive to focus on while much of the ground we all stand on becomes increasingly unstable.

Professors Lisa Shin and Samuel Sommers are coauthors of Invitation to Psychology, 7th Edition and Psychology, 13th Edition. They participated in the Unwritten video series regarding Covid-19 and Psychology earlier this year.

About the authors
Lisa Shin, PhD

Lisa Shin, PhD

Dr. Shin earned her PhD in psychology at Harvard University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She has also been on the faculty at Tufts University since 1998, where she is currently the chair of the Psychology Department. Dr. Shin’s research involved examining brain function and cognitive processing and patients with anxiety disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

 

Sam Sommers, PhD

Sam Sommers, PhD

Dr. Sommers earned his PhD in psychology at the University of Michigan and has been a Professor of Psychology at Tufts University since 2003. He is a social psychologist whose research examines issues related to intergroup relations, group composition and diversity, stereotyping and bias, and the intersection of psychology and law. Dr. Sommers teaches courses in experimental psychology, social psychology, and psychology and law and also team teaches Introduction to Psychology with Dr. Shin.