Funded PhD Opportunity: Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com
Author(s): Angela Rodrigues and Nicki O’Brien

The field of health communication tends to centre on analysing the effectiveness of specific information contexts and less on relationships between message framing, intentions and behaviour (Nabi & Green, 2015; Joyce & Harwood, 2014). People’s health-related decision-making is not completely rational (Witteman, van den Bercken, Claes & Godoy, 2009). Framing effect theory suggests that different presentations of health-related information can affect individuals’ decision-making preferences (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Research suggests that messages presenting gains are more persuasive in encouraging prevention behaviours (Noar, Harrington & Aldrich, 2009); Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin & Salovey, 2006). Gain framing messaging may be more effective in promoting vaccination – a type of health preventive behaviour (Park, 2012).

Persuading young adults to get vaccinated is critical for the national vaccination programme as a whole and is also arguably the key to achieving herd immunity. Within the national vaccination programme for young adults, the following vaccinations are available: Human papillomavirus (HPV), meningitis, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19.

According to the latest figures, HPV vaccine coverage for the first dose in 2019/20 was 59.2% in Year 8 (aged 12-13) females (compared with 88.0% in 2018/19) and 54.4% in Year 8 males (Public Health England, 2020). From September 2019 the national HPV vaccination programme became universal with 12- to 13-year-old males becoming eligible alongside females (Public Health England, 2020). For females that missed or chose not to get the HPV vaccine offered in school, they can get the vaccine up until their 25th birthday; males can take up the vaccine until they are 45 years old (NHS, 2021).

Influenza is a vaccine-preventable disease, and annual influenza vaccination is the most effective method for prevention (WHO, 2012). Despite not part of the national vaccination programme, some universities are implementing a flu vaccine for their student communities (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing/health-care/vaccinations/get-flu-vaccination).

Research has found low seasonal flu vaccine uptake and low vaccine knowledge among university-aged students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). In the US – where influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone aged ≥6 months – data show that vaccination rates range from 9-30% in university students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). Recent evidence suggests that making the flu vaccine part of the national vaccination programme for young adults (<20 years old) might be cost-effective (Hill et al., 2020). 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency to vaccinate young adults and promote COVID-19 vaccination uptake in this population is particularly pronounced (Lucia, Kelekar & Afonso, 2021). Recent NHS England figures show that approximately 75% of 18-24 years olds have had one COVID-19 vaccination; but only approximately 60% have had two vaccinations (NHS England COVID-19 Dashboard 21 Oct. , 2021). Together, these figures highlight that a proportion of young adults is left unvaccinated. Vaccination of young adults can potentially provide direct protection for the recipients and indirect (herd) protection for the community (Pebody et al., 2018).

In the transition period of attending university, for many away from home, there might be an opportunity to promote a range of vaccinations to young adults, and shape these emerging adults’ vaccination habits for other vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccines. As settings within which students become independent, universities have both a responsibility and the potential to enable healthy development (Tsouros, Dowding, Thompson & Dooris, 1998). Accordingly, ‘health-promoting universities’ are being called upon to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and of providing health-promoting activities for students (Bachert et al., 2021).

Understanding underlying mechanisms that drive young adults’ preferences for and engagement with vaccination campaigns could inform the design of effective messaging to influence their decision-making processes when communicating during a public health crisis.

What is the aim of this PhD project?

This PhD project will develop and test, evidence-based vaccination messages targeted at young adults, using framing theory as theoretical approach.

Objectives

  1. Appraise existing vaccination campaigns directed at young adults by exploring effective behaviour change strategies and mechanisms of change associated with vaccination uptake;
  2. With young adults, co-design and develop a suite of health messages aimed at promoting vaccination uptake (such as influenza, COVID-19, HPV, meningitis);
  3. Conduct experimental and longitudinal studies to explore young adults’ preferences for and impact of the co-produced vaccination messages.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about health-related behaviour change, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Angela is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department and has experience in the area of developing and evaluating complex interventions for behaviour change, with a specific focus on theory- and evidence-based interventions. Angela co-Leads the Behaviour Change Research Programme of Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health).

Nicki is a Health Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Psychology department. She has expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions, and a particular interest in the application of co-design techniques for intervention development with stakeholders.

The supervisory team works alongside other behaviour change experts in the north east of England and the North East North Cumbria NHIR ARC

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Angela Rodrigues (angela.rodrigues@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Ruddy, E., Moor, J., Idowu, O., Araujo Soares, V., Rodrigues, A., & Birch-Machin, M. The Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on health behaviours of the UK population: a cross-sectional study. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. [Manuscript in preparation].

O’Brien N, Vijaykumar S, Craig M, Land E, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (Under Review). A before-after cross-sectional survey of the effect of exposure to GIFs communicating Covid-19 preventive behaviours on behavioural cognitions of Guatemalan adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

O’Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, et al. (2021) Languageless animated gifs to communicate COVID-19 preventive behaviours to adults in Guatemala: Development and evaluation of efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 28:S11-S12.

Araújo-Soares, V., Hankonen, N., Presseau, J., Rodrigues, A., & Sniehotta, F. F. (2019). Developing behavior change interventions for self-management in chronic illness. European Psychologist, 24(1), 7-25.

Rodrigues, A., Sniehotta, F. F., Birch-Machin, M. A., Olivier, P., & Araújo-Soares, V. (2017). Systematic and iterative development of a smartphone app to promote sun-protection among holidaymakers: design of a prototype and results of usability and acceptability testing. JMIR Research Protocols6(6), e112.

O’Brien N, Heaven B, Teal G, Evans E, Cleland C, Moffatt S, Sniehotta FF, White M, Mathers J, Moynihan P (2016). Integrating evidence from systematic reviews, qualitative research, and expert knowledge using co-design techniques to develop a web-based intervention for people in the retirement transition. Journal of Medical Internet Research,18(8):e210; doi: 10.2196/jmir.5790

Funded PhD Opportunity: Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission

Authors: Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar and Dr Michael Craig

Background to the project

Effective public health communications are critical to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Internationally, government guidance and legislation have advocated and coerced evidence-based transmission preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing, good hygiene practices such as handwashing, and mask-wearing. Encouraging individual adherence to these behaviours is challenging, requiring input and evidence from psychology and behavioural science.

Research on the individual determinants of transmission preventive behaviours provides evidence of potentially modifiable targets for behaviour change interventions to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies have been shown to predict preventive behaviours of physical, handwashing and mask-wearing.

Information is better retained when health communications include visuals rather than text alone. Visual communications do not rely on language but use images and animations to tell the message narrative. In countries with multiple official languages, visual languageless communications can disseminate messages to the entire population.

The languageless visual messages (GIFs) that have been developed

The proposed project will extend previous work of a collaboration between the supervisory team at Northumbria University and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, Guatemala (http://www.odhag.org.gt/). The collaboration developed evidence-based, languageless, animated messages, in the form of GIFs, which have been disseminated via social media across Guatemala and on the national catholic TV channel. The GIFs can be seen here. Guatemala is an exemplar multilingual country with 25 official languages spoken (24 indigenous and Spanish).

The effect of exposure to the GIFs on behavioural beliefs about performing the preventive behaviours has been examined through an online experimental study of Guatemalan adults. The data demonstrated that exposure to the GIFs resulted in significant improvements in key determinants of preventive behaviours, namely intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. These preliminary data suggest promise of the GIFs to have a positive impact on adherence to behaviours, however, this is yet to be determined.

The aim of this PhD project

To identify and explore how different features and potential mechanisms of action of languageless health messages (GIFs), promoting Covid-19 preventive behaviours, impact on their potential effectiveness. The project will include a consensus study to identify the behavioural science evidence base (including the behaviour change features) of the GIFs and a series of experimental studies to explore the effects of exposure to the existing GIFs and modified GIFs (i.e., with varying message features and mechanisms of action) on adherence to preventive behaviours in different Latin American and UK populations.     

The supervisory team

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Michael Craig (Department of Psychology), and Ellie Land (Department of Arts). The supervisory team combines the complementary disciplinary, methodological and topic expertise required to fully support this research: Dr O’Brien is a Health Psychologist with expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions. Dr Vijaykumar is a health and risk communication scientist with expertise in public health, behavioural science and new media technologies.  Dr Michael Craig is an experimental psychologist with expertise in the investigation of human cognition and the effects of behavioural interventions. Ellie Land is an award-winning factual animation maker, director, educator and researcher with expertise in animated short, feature-length and interactive films.  

The skills and experience a candidate needs

We are looking for someone who is keen to develop the science of behaviour change within the context of languageless visual health messages. Candidates would be expected to have a background in psychology, public health, health communication or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent). An interest in design is desirable but not essential. Knowledge and experience of quantitative research methods are needed.  

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Nicki O’Brien (nicki.obrien@northumbria.ac.uk).

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Understanding Menopause

The 18th October is World Menopause Day. Researchers in the psychology department are working to futher our understanding of menopause, how it impacts women and how we can alleviate some of the negative symptoms of menopause. In this post, Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay explains the basics of menopause and tell us about her teams current research projects, from research in to sleep disturbances, dietary changes and menopause in the workplace.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com
author: Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay, department of psychology, northumbria university

Menopause – The Basics

Menopause is a normal, natural life event experienced by most women, and some men. Menopause results in lower levels of oestrogen and other hormones and is defined as the permanent loss of menstrual periods, usually confirmed when a period is missed for 12 consecutive months. This typically occurs between ages 40 and 58, with the average age being 51.

Perimenopause is the stage from the beginning of menopausal symptoms to the postmenopause and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. During the perimenopause, hormone levels change and the ovaries start to produce fewer eggs. Although over half of the world will experience menopause and the potential for debilitating symptoms associated with it, this important life event receives very little attention and is often not discussed.

Hot, sweaty and sweary

There are a number of common physical symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, including:

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Incontinence and bladder problems
  • Weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulty sleeping

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with memory and concentration – “brain fog”
  • Loss of interest in sex

However, experience of the menopause is different for everyone and a lack of awareness of the full array of symptoms both from the point of view of the individual and often within the medical profession can lead to menopause not being diagnosed. Psychological symptoms are particularly likely to be missed and often anti-depressants are prescribed without identification of menopause as the underlying cause.

Managing menopause symptoms through diet

Alternatives to anti-depressants include dietary supplements and herbal extracts and there are a range of these supplements that are marketed with claims to improve symptoms related to menopause. Unfortunately, research examining the effects of these supplements is limited and there is a lack of good evidence to support the claims made. However, research has indicated that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes is associated with delayed onset of natural menopause whereas refined pasta and rice was associated with earlier menopause. A higher intake of vitamin B6 and zinc was also associated with later age at menopause.

A limited number of studies have also assessed the role of diet in reducing or exacerbating menopausal symptoms. A recent systematic review indicated that lower intensity of symptoms was associated with a diet comprising of more vegetables, whole grain and unprocessed food. However, the majority of studies in this area have focused on specific aspects of menopause symptoms or on specific aspects of the diet, with a lack of studies conducted in the UK.

Overall, evidence on the relationship between dietary intake and menopausal symptoms is inconsistent and inconclusive. Within the Psychology department at Northumbria we are currently conducting research exploring the relationship between menopause symptoms, mental wellbeing, and diet in a UK population.

Menopausal sleep disturbance

Sleep disturbances are extremely common during menopause, where specific problems include difficulties with falling asleep, frequent awakenings, awakening too early, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Therefore, interventions which improve or prevent menopause-related sleep disturbances are extremely important and are likely to aid physical and psychological health. To date, there are no systematic reviews of nutritional interventions to treat menopause-related sleep disturbances. Researchers within the department are currently completing a systematic review of the literature exploring nutritional interventions for menopause-related sleep disturbances.

The findings from both of the current projects relating to diet will inform the development of subsequent nutritional intervention trials examining the impact on menopausal symptoms and specifically on sleep disturbances in menopause.

Menopause in the workplace

As menopause is rarely discussed this can lead to a lack of support and issues in the workplace. Almost one million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. As the issue mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women eligible for senior management roles leaving work at the peak of their career. This also leads to knock-on effects to workplace productivity, the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.

In July it was announced that an inquiry was being launched by the Commons cross-party women and equalities committee examining “An invisible cohort: why are workplaces failing women going through the menopause?”. This inquiry will scrutinise existing legislation and workplace practices and will draw up recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality. As stated by the Chair of this committee:

“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of the menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society and our place on the world stage.”

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP

Whilst this issue is gaining some attention there is still a lack of awareness of individual’s experiences of menopause in the workplace and particularly the types of support that may lead to improvements in psychological symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause.

About the author and research team

Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay is a professor of Biological Psychology in the psychology department. She is also Director of Postgraduate Research and a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

The projects described above are all being conducted in collaboration with paid student interns or placement students (Abi Glancey, Maddy Lane, Dominik Polasek) as well as staff members in Psychology: Greg ElderVicki Elsey, Nayantara Santhi and Michael Smith.

If you are interested in learning more about this research, please contact crystal.haskell-ramsay@northumbria.ac.uk

Northumbria researchers win Prolific Grant Competition

Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of  Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.

Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).

The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis

This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”

Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.

Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!

References

1.         Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.

2.         Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.

Want to learn more?

Head over to our Health and Wellbeing Blog

Treatments for Mental Health Problems 

To mark World Mental Health Day, I’m writing a blog that covers two separate, but related, things. Both things relate to a question a patient asked me back in about 2014 and which I have thought a lot about since then

“Why aren’t researchers churning out new treatments for mental health problems the way new treatments for cancer get churned out?” 

Author: Dr David Smailes

The first thing I wanted to write about is something that I think is implicit in that patient’s question, but doesn’t exactly answer it. It’s about how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to other types of health problems.

How effective are treatments for mental health problems?

A relatively widely held belief is that interventions for mental health problems aren’t very effective. However, at least some of the data we have suggests that treatments in psychiatry (such as medications for things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and panic disorder) work, on average, about as well as treatments for other types of health problems (such as medications for heart failure, asthma, and COPD). 

A number of caveats need to be added here, as the authors of the study – Leucht and colleagues – noted. For example, it is difficult to compare how well treatments for different illnesses or health problems work because the outcomes researchers in different fields look at are so different. That is, if a psychological/psychiatric treatment doubles the likelihood that a patient recovers from depression, is that treatment as effective as one which halves the risk of someone dying from a heart attack? That’s a hard judgement to make. We also need to take into account things like the side effects of treatments, too. All of this means, in short, that it’s very difficult to say how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to treatments for other types of health problems. But looking at the data from Leucht and colleagues’ analysis, treatments for mental health problems seem reasonably effective. 

That being said, I think no one would disagree with the claim that we need to develop novel, more effective treatments for mental health problems. Disappointingly, over the past few decades, few – if any – novel, more effective interventions for mental health problems have been developed. There are many possible explanations for the lack of novel, more effective treatments – low levels of funding in mental health research in comparison to things like cancer researchmental health problems simply being more difficult to understand and develop interventions forresearchers focussing on the wrong kinds of questions. But the possible explanation I’m focussing on here is that too much of the research done into the causes of mental health problems can’t be replicated. 

The problem of replication

When research can’t be replicated, this means that when other researchers try to repeat a study someone else has performed, they fail to find the same results. The results of the original study, therefore, may be untrustworthy. Over the past decade, many scientific fields have re-examined what proportion of the findings they generate are replicable, and in several areas of psychology it has been estimated that only 30-50% of findings are replicable. Mental health researchers have, however, not really examined how replicable (or trustworthy) findings in our field are. But I see no reason to expect that our field will be different to other areas of psychology. This means that it is quite likely that much of the evidence we have about what factors might cause mental health problems will be wrong. And this is important because our understanding of what causes mental health problems tends to shape the treatments we develop to treat mental health problems. So, if we aren’t doing replicable research into what causes mental health problems, then we have little chance of developing novel, more effective treatments for those mental health problems. 

Happily, there are many reasonably straightforward solutions to these problems. We know, for example, that running studies that (a) use larger samples than we have typically achieved in the past, that (b) pay more attention to how well variables are being measured, and that (c) involve fully open reporting of how the study will be run and how its data will be analysed generates findings that are more replicable and trustworthy.

How is the Psychology Department at Northumbria addressing this issue?

Here in the Department of Psychology, we have been conducting studies in line with these solutions, to try to improve the replicability and trustworthiness of mental health research. These studies have tested how replicable some findings in hallucinations research are when large sample sizes are used and have shown how we can examine whether variables in research have been measured effectively. More broadly, Northumbria University has joined the UK Reproducibility Network, an organisation that aims to improve the replicability and reproducibility of all areas of research in the UK. This is a really important step and shows that the university is committed to generating really robust, trustworthy research. 

As I said earlier, some the solutions to the problem of research findings that can’t be replicated and so seem untrustworthy are quite straightforward, but they are often time-consuming and costly. This has meant that the take-up of these solutions has been quite slow. But, at least to me, it does feel like mental health research is beginning to move in the right direction. And the quicker that can happen, the sooner we should be able to start developing novel, more effective treatments to help people struggling with their mental health. 

Interested in hearing about our research in to mental health?

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COVID smell loss can have profound effects on your life, from weight change to intimacy barriers

Flotsam/Shuttestock
AUTHOR: Vincent Deary, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Duika Burges Watson, Newcastle University

It took a while to be officially recognised, but smell loss eventually became known to be one of the defining features of COVID-19. It’s now widely acknowledged that COVID-19 has a unique effect on smell receptors, and about 10% of those who lose their smell are still reporting problems with smell and taste six months later.

The effects of this can be profound. So we wanted to document what it was like to live with long-term smell and taste problems, and we did this by working with the smell-loss charity AbScent, which has an online support group for people with post-COVID smell problems.

By speaking to people in this group, we were able to build a picture of the wider impacts of disrupted smell following COVID-19. At the time of conducting our research, over 9,000 people had joined the group. Every day we were seeing new accounts of the devastating effect of sensory change.

We started posting questions to get a better sense of what was going on, and the response was overwhelming. People really wanted their experiences to be heard. With the consent of participants, we began to analyse their responses. We ran every theme we detected past the group and got them to comment on our research paper before we finalised it. We wanted to be sure we were telling their stories correctly. Here’s what we found out.

The end of food satisfaction

It’s been hard for people even close to me to understand the severity of the loss and how it’s affected my life.

Before we go further, let’s define a few key terms. Anosmia is total loss of smell. Parosmia is where normal smells are distorted, usually unpleasantly. Taste is what is picked up by the receptors on the tongue. Flavour is the total sensory experience of food, to which smell is the major contributor, but the other senses are also involved. This means that even if your taste (tongue) is fine, loss of smell will seriously affect flavour.

The first thing that struck us was how unpredictable and disorientating the sensory loss experience could be. For some, the effects were absolute:

It was like a light switch: from 100% to 0% in a couple of hours… No distorted smells, no whiffs, nothing. It’s like my nose switched off.

For others, things were more fluid. Anosmia could mutate into parosmia. Food that was fine one day could become disgusting the next. This “chaos narrative” – as sociologists call it – meant that smell loss was very difficult to live with, let alone manage. A condition over which there was no control.

A woman disgusted at the smell of a cup of coffee
What was once familiar and enjoyable could suddenly become strange and unpleasant. Farknot Architect/Shutterstock

The effect on appetite was also unpredictable. As might be expected, people had trouble eating – particularly when normal smells were distorted. Some were really struggling, reporting malnutrition and severe weight loss.

Less obviously, some people reported weight gain. These were usually people with anosmia, who were “chasing flavour” after losing their sense of smell. You can understand this if you realise the distinction between wanting and liking in what psychologists call the pleasure cycle.

Wanting is where you are chasing the thing you are going to consume. Liking is when you have got it and you are savouring it. In anosmia, that savouring part is no longer there, but this doesn’t stop the wanting:

Food satisfaction is lacking and I see myself eating more to try to get that satisfied feeling… I am gaining weight due to a constant urge to satisfy what can never be satisfied.

Intimacy is a scent

But it wasn’t all about food. Until you lose it, you don’t realise how essential eating is to everyday joys, especially social pleasures:

I am grieving for my lost senses. No more wine and cheese tasting nights or gin cocktails with my “girls”.

Even more heartbreaking was the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships. There were a lot of posts where people described the loneliness of no longer being able to smell their partner or their children. Again, until it is gone, you don’t realise how important smell is to intimacy and connection. Even worse was the effect of parosmia:

His natural odour used to make me want him; now it makes me vomit.

How do you tell your lover that?

A man smelling his girlfriend's hair
Smell is an important but underappreciated part of what makes a person seem who they are. puhhha/Shutterstock

Some people’s relationships with themselves and the world had also changed. Some with no sense of smell reported feeling detached from themselves and the world. With parosmia, it could be more disturbing yet, with disgusting smells being triggered by everyday scents, making the world feel like a dangerous and confusing place.

For some these sensory changes were, fortunately, temporary. However, months down the line, many are stuck with profound sensory changes, with all the distress that brings. While there is evidence that smell training helps sensory recovery in other conditions, we are still at the early stages of understanding and developing treatments for what amounts to a pandemic of altered sensing.

About the Authors

Vincent Deary, is a Professor of Applied Health Psychology, within the Health and Wellbeing Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. He is also a member of the Altered Eating Network: https://twitter.com/AlteredEating

Duika Burges Watson, is a Lecturer in Global Health, Newcastle University

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Head over to the Health and Wellbeing Research section of the blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spotlight on: Professor Nick Neave

Nick Neave is a Professor in psychology and the lead of our Hoarding Research Group. Hes also the Faculty Director of Ethics and teaches a range of modules in the psychology, including our very popular Parapsychology module!

How long have you worked at Northumbria?

I have been at Northumbria for 25 years.

What got you interested in psychology?

I became interested at college by taking it as an A/O level, I chose this subject as I did not know what it was and it sounded interesting.

What was your PhD/Masters about?

My PhD was on the Neuroanatomical basis of spatial working memory.

What are your main research areas?

My main research areas are not hoarding and collecting behaviours (especially digital hoarding), conspiracy theory belief, and the home advantage in football.

What advice do you have for students?

Do not be obsessed by career pathways, take courses you are actually interested in

What would you have liked to do if you had not become a psychologist?

I started out as a primary school teacher and so would most likely still be doing that!

Lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation: how different COVID restrictions affect our mental health

Zamuruew/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Tom Heffernan, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

In the year since the city of Wuhan, China, went into the world’s first coronavirus lockdown, we have all had to live under some form of pandemic-related restriction.

Some countries have opted for strict national lockdowns, like the one currently in place in the UK, while other countries such as Taiwan have opted for border closures and mandatory quarantine for overseas arrivals. Such different approaches to restricting movement have different effects on our well-being.

It is now well documented that the pandemic has generally contributed to a number of mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression. But what role do restrictions on movement play in this? And how do they differ?

Different pandemic restrictions

Researchers around the world are now focusing on what the specific impact of lockdown, quarantine and isolation might have upon our mental health. Lockdown, in the context of COVID-19, refers to implementation of strict community restrictions on travel and social interaction as well as denying access to public spaces.

Quarantine is a restriction of movement of those people who have been exposed to a contagious disease to observe whether they will become ill. In Australia, for example, all overseas arrivals must spend 14 days in hotel quarantine before being allowed into the community.

Self-isolation, meanwhile, is the separation of those who have become sick as a result of a contagious disease in order to separate them from others who are not sick.

Quarantine

Looking to past pandemics can help us understand this one. A recent academic review examined studies of people who had been quarantined as a result of other disease outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS and swine flu. The review concluded that quarantine can lead to a number of harmful psychological effects.

One outcome is the fear and anxiety that can increase due to worries about catching or transmitting the virus, and concerns about the health, social and economic effects of the pandemic. Individuals can also experience anger at the changing policies and protocols that impinge upon their everyday life and feelings of control.

And the long-term effects of quarantine can lead to some people subsequently developing a post-traumatic stress reaction, which can manifest in feelings of exhaustion, low mood and irritability.

Lockdown vs self-isolation

For lockdown and self-isolation measures, we have data from the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

Research from Italy, which was hit hard early in the pandemic and had an extensive lockdown, has found that more than one-third of the general public experienced significant psychological distress during the second month of coronavirus restrictions.

In a forthcoming study, my colleagues and I looked at what impact lockdown and had on psychological well-being and happiness compared to self-isolation. From March to July 2020, we assessed a sample of UK adults who were under one of three types of restrictions: self-isolation, full lockdown or partial lockdown (full lockdown is remaining at home and not going to work, whereas partial lockdown allows you to go to work).

After controlling for variations in age and sex, we found that those in self-isolation reported significantly lower levels of psychological well-being and happiness when compared to those in lockdown or those in partial lockdown, with no difference between the last two groups.

These findings suggest that self-isolation impairs psychological well-being and happiness to a greater degree than lockdown.

Caging the social animal

COVID-19 restrictions heighten the fears people have about health and safety as well as financial and social consequences. Self-isolation may add to this due to a prolonged separation from friends and family – those who provide a close support network. This is because during self-isolation you should avoid contact with everyone, even those in your household.

The finding of no difference between those in full lockdown and partial lockdown is equally interesting. This suggests that people can maintain a sense of satisfaction, optimism, engagement and a positive mood state despite the restrictions placed upon them, testifying to the resilience of humans under difficult conditions.

Humans are essentially social animals. Our large brains have developed to embrace social contact and develop skills that have helped us survive and prosper. These skills include language, problem-solving and planning, as well as empathy and care for others. We are hard-wired for social contact and communication.

Social isolation breaks many of these forms of communication and interactions, which are key to forming strong social bonds. It should therefore come as no surprise to find that prolonged periods of isolation can lead to a range of psychological problems, just as it does in the abnormal behaviour and communication found in a caged animal.

One year on, we are still yet to understand the full psychological fallout of COVID-19. But working out how different restrictions affect us our inner social animal is an important place to start as we navigate our way out of this pandemic and prepare for the next one.

Tom Heffernan is a senior lecturer in the psychology department, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience research group. He also teaches about the psychology of crime.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Northumbria PhD Students’ Prize Winning Research

One of our current PhD students, Richard Brown, has been awarded runner up in the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group awards for his research conducted in his time on our MSc Psychology programme. Richard is now a PhD student, working with Dr Gillian Pepper, and Dr Liz Sillence and also works as a research assistant with Liz and Professor Lynne Coventry as part of the INTUIT project. He completed his Psychology master’s conversion course at Northumbria in 2020 after previously working in law and education.

Richard’s master’s research

Richard’s master’s thesis investigated perceptions of risk and health and information seeking behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveying a nationally representative sample of 500 UK adults. From this study, he was able to produce two publications alongside Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Lynne Coventry.

The first paper investigated the relationship between perceptions of risk and health behaviours during lockdown. It was found that greater perceived threat to life from COVID-19 predicted increased compliance with infection control measures. It was also suggested that the pandemic may have made people feel less control over what is likely to kill them. Feeling less control over what may kill you was also associated with a worsening of health behaviours for diet, physical activity and smoking. This suggests that health messages that highlight threat to life may increase adherence to infection control, but may also lead to a reduction in health-promoting behaviours.

The second paper looked at demographic and occupational inequalities in experiences and perceptions of COVID-19. Men reported lower levels of perceived threat to life from the virus than women and, among workers, lower occupational class was associated with greater levels of perceived risk of infection and perceived threat to life. Most notably, key workers during the pandemic who reported feeling that they are insufficiently protected by their PPE experienced increased levels of perceived threat, which may lead to negative health behaviours. This highlights the need for employers to ensure that key workers feel they are adequately protected from COVID-19.

What’s next?

Richard is now looking to build on this research during his doctoral studies. He has submitted a position paper for publication that outlines the theoretical and empirical case for the expanded study of the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis, developed by his supervisor Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University. He has also finished collecting data for the qualitative study of feelings of control over different causes of death, which he hopes will expand into further quantitative research later in the year. Finally, he is planning to investigate health misinformation on Facebook to determine some of the key message characteristics that lead to enhanced sharing online.

Advice for students wanting to publish during their studies

Richard’s advice to students looking to publish their work is to cast the net wide when looking for opportunities and to be creative in disseminating their ideas. In addition to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group, various organisations advertise student essay competitions which offer the opportunity to have your work published in their affiliated journals (for example the Royal Society for Public Health). There are also opportunities to pitch your ideas to The Conversation and other information outlets. For example, Richard published an article on Open Science in the Psychologist earlier this year. Finally, inspired by Dr Santosh Vijaykumar’s work on The Batsapp Project and Dr Daniel Jolley’s videos on conspiracy theories, Richard has created an explainer video to summarise his first study in a fun and accessible way. This provides a fresh and creative approach for getting your ideas noticed.

You can watch his video below!

To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down

A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock.com
AUTHOR: Dr Michael Smith, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University

Writing about positive emotions may help to reduce stress and anxiety, according to our new study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Earlier research has also found that writing about negative emotions – getting things “off your chest” – can improve your mental health. And it seems to benefit physical health, too.

Stress affects your physical health, so it is thought that improvements in mental well-being might stop people becoming physically unwell. Research has shown that writing about negative emotions can lead to fewer visits to the doctor, fewer self-reported symptoms of ill health, and less time off work due to ill health.

Not many studies have investigated writing about positive emotions, but if writing about negative emotions helps people deal with their negative thoughts and feelings, then it’s possible that focusing on positive emotions might have a positive effect on people’s mental health.

Earlier research has shown that writing about positive experiences for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, improved people’s mood and led to fewer visits to the doctor. Even writing for as little as two minutes a day about a positive experience has been shown to reduce the number of health complaints that people report.

While earlier studies showed that writing about positive experiences can improve your mood, we didn’t know what effect it might have on stress and anxiety.

Twenty minutes a day

For our study, we investigated whether writing about a positive experience – which could include anything from being moved by a good book, painting or piece of music, to falling in love – could reduce stress, anxiety and common health complaints, such as a headache, back pain or coughs and colds. We also wanted to know if it would be helpful for all people, regardless of their level of distress.

Writing about falling in love could be good for your mental health.
Look Studio/Shutterstock.com

We recruited 71 healthy participants, aged 19 to 77, and randomly allocated them to one of two groups. We asked one group (37 participants) to write about the most wonderful experiences of their life for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, and we asked the other group (34 participants) to write about a neutral topic, such as their plans for the rest of the day, over the same time frame.

We measured levels of anxiety, as reported by the participants, immediately before and after they completed their writing task. We found a significantly greater decrease in anxiety for those people who wrote about positive experiences, compared with those who wrote about neutral topics.

The participants also reported their levels of stress, anxiety and physical health complaints four weeks after they completed the writing tasks. Stress and anxiety decreased to a significantly greater extent for those who wrote about positive experiences after four weeks, compared with the levels reported before they completed the writing tasks. However, writing didn’t improve participants’ physical health problems.

We also found that writing about happy moments was effective, regardless of the levels of distress that people reported at the start of the study.

Because we excluded people with a diagnosed psychological condition, we can’t be sure that this technique would work in a clinical setting. It’s also important to note that in order for them to engage with the task, it wasn’t possible to blind participants to the treatment. Another limitation of our study was that we relied on self-report questionnaires, rather than using objective measures of mental and physical health.

Of course, emotional writing may not be for everyone. Personality traits, problems expressing emotions or a disinterest in writing might mean that for some people there are better ways to tackle negative emotions.

An advantage of writing about positive emotions to tackle stress and anxiety is its simplicity. Unlike many other strategies for improving psychological well-being, this task needs no training or time spent with a therapist. People can do it at a time and place that is convenient for them – and it’s free.The Conversation

Dr Michael Smith is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department, a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group, and our Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.