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.

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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. 

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Why do we dream?

agsandrew/Shutterstock
Author: Professor Jason Ellis, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

Although science knows what dreams are, it is still not known exactly why we dream, although plenty of theories exist.

Dreams are patterns of sensory information that occur when the brain is in a resting state – as in asleep. It is generally assumed that dreams only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – this is when the brain appears to be in an active state but the individual is asleep and in a state of paralysis. But studies have shown that they can also happen outside of REM.

Research from sleep studies, for example, shows that REM-related dreams tend to be more fantastical, more colourful and vivid whereas non-REM dreams are more concrete and usually characterised in black and white. Recent studies on dreaming show that during a dream (and in particular a REM-related dream) the emotional centre of the brain is highly active whereas the logical rational centre of the brain is slowed. This can help explain why these dreams are more emotive and surreal.

Evolutionary theory suggests the purpose of dreams is to learn, in a safe way, how to deal with challenging or threatening situations. Whereas the “memory consolidation” theory suggests that dreams are a byproduct of reorganising memory in response to what has been learned throughout the day.

Both theories have at least one thing in common – during times of stress and anxiety we either dream more or remember our dreams more often, as a way of coping with challenging circumstances and new information. This is also in line with another theory of dreaming – the mood regulatory function of dreams theory, where the function of dreams is to problem-solve emotional issues.

Anxiety and stress dreams

While there is no evidence that we dream more when we are stressed, research shows we are more likely to remember our dreams because our sleep is poorer and we tend to wake in the night more frequently.

Studies show the dreams of people with insomnia (a disorder largely characterised by stress) contain more negative emotion and are more focused on the self, in a negative light. Also, the dreams of people with insomnia tend to focus on current life stressors, anxieties and can leave an individual with a low mood the following day.

‘And then I was sitting on top of a palm tree in a white plastic chair.’ Evgeniya Porechenskaya/Shutterstock

Outside of insomnia, research has found that people who are depressed, while going through a divorce, appear to dream differently compared to those who are not depressed. They rate their dreams as more unpleasant. Interestingly though the study found that those depressed volunteers who dreamt of their ex-spouse were more likely to have recovered from their depression a year later compared to those that did not dream of the ex-spouse. Participants whose dreams changed over time, to become less angry and more pragmatic, also showed the greatest improvements. The question is why?

Although our senses are dampened during sleep (with vision being completely absent), strong sensory information, such as an alarm, will be registered and in some cases incorporated into the dream itself. We also know that during times of stress we are more vigilant to threat (on cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels), so it stands to reason that we are more likely to incorporate internal and external signals into our dreams, as a way to manage them. And this may account for these changes in our dreams, when we are anxious, depressed or sleeping badly.

How to sleep better

The current thinking is stress reduction before bed and good sleep management – such as keeping a consistent sleep routine, using the bedroom only for sleep, making sure the bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and free from anything arousing – will reduce awakenings at night and so the frequency of stress-related negative dreams.

That said, using a technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), mainly used for treating nightmares in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, it appears stress and anxiety associated with nightmares and bad dreams as well as the frequency of bad dreams can be reduced. This is achieved by re-imagining the ending of the dream or the context of the dream, making it less threatening.

The night I became a pink unicorn. Evgeniya Porechenskaya/Shutterstock

There is also evidence that IRT is effective for reducing nightmares in children. Although IRT is thought to be successful by giving the dreamer a sense of control over the dream, this hasn’t been well studied in people who are stressed or anxious.

That said, a recent study showed that teaching people with insomnia to be aware while they were dreaming and to control the dream, as it occurs – known as lucid dreaming training – not only reduced their insomnia symptoms but also reduced their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Perhaps then the key is to manage the dreams as opposed to trying to manage the stress – especially in uncertain times.

Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. He is a member of the Health and Wellbeing research group and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

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

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

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

Why do you feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep?

Dropping off. Shutterstock
Author: Professor Jason Ellis, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

It should be one of the most relaxing times of the day. You climb into bed, get comfortable and cosy, start to feel your brain slowing down … and then suddenly you experience a shocking falling sensation. It’s like you misjudged the number of stairs you were walking down, leaving your leg in mid air for just a bit longer than you expected. Not pleasant.

This bedtime tumbling sensation is the phenomenon known as the “hypnic jerk” and may sometimes be accompanied by a visual hallucination. You may have heard it called a “sleep start”, the “hypnagogic jerk” or the “myoclonic jerk”, but for the sake of sanity we’ll just stick with the former.

So what is it?

The hypnic jerk occurs when the muscles, usually in the legs (although they can be observed throughout the body), involuntarily contract quickly, almost like a twitch or spasm. Although the reasons behind this are not that well understood, the evolutionary perspective suggests that it serves at least two important but interrelated functions, the former of which is still relevant today.

First, this sudden awakening allows us to check our environment one last time, an opportunity to ensure that it really is safe to go to sleep by creating a startle-like response. You might have accidentally dropped off somewhere dangerous, after all.

Another suggested evolutionary function is that it allowed us – or at least our early ancestors – to check the stability of our body position before we went to sleep, especially if we started to fall asleep in a tree. The jerk would allow us to test our “footing” before unconsciousness set in. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Mg_66TRsb6Y?wmode=transparent&start=0

The other main theory suggests that the hypnic jerk is merely a symptom of our active physiological system finally giving in, albeit sometimes reluctantly, to our sleep drive, moving from active and volitional motor control to a state of relaxation and eventual bodily paralysis. In essence, the hypnic jerk may be a sign of the eventual switch over between the brain’s recticular activating system (which uses arousal neurotransmitters to aid wakefulness) and the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (which utilises inhibitory neurotransmitters to reduce wakefulness and promote sleep).

When jerks go bad

Either way, although in most cases a normal and natural phenomenon, the hypnic jerk can be a rather disconcerting or frightening experience. In extreme cases – whether in terms of frequency or the velocity and violence of the jerk – it can keep people awake, preventing them from entering the normal sleep onset process, resulting, in the longer-term, in a form of sleep-onset insomnia.

As the hypnic jerk is related to motor activity, anything that is going to keep your motor system active at night is likely to increase the chances of you having one – and possibly even a more intense one, too.

As such, caffeine (or other stimulants) and/or vigorous exercise in the evening and high stress and anxiety levels at night are associated with an increased chance of a spontaneous hypnic jerk and should, where possible, be avoided. Other associations include being overtired or fatigued, sleep deprived or having an erratic sleep schedule. Here, keeping a good regular sleep/wake pattern can help. https://www.youtube.com/embed/39a_XWaJ7As?wmode=transparent&start=0

Finally, from a nutritional perspective, it has been suggested, albeit anecdotally, that deficiencies in magnesium, calcium and/or iron can also increase the chances of experiencing a spontaneous hypnic jerk. That said, it has also been suggested that hypnic jerks can be evoked through sensory stimulation, during the sleep onset period, so ensuring that your sleep environment is cool, dark and quiet may be helpful in reducing the frequency and intensity of them.

There is actually very little research on the topic, presumably because it is largely seen as a normal phenomenon, making it difficult to suggest a definitive “treatment”. However, we do know that as we get older the number of hypnic jerks we will experience should decrease naturally. The main issue to consider here is whether the hypnic jerk is causing you or your bed partner a problem? If it is, then it is time to see a sleep specialist. The difficulty is there are a number of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, that have symptoms which mimic the experience.

And if all else fails, perhaps just blame the ancestors.

Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. He is a member of the Health and Wellbeing research group and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

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

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

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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.

Why some people believe they can hear the dead

Tom Tom/Shutterstock
AUTHORS: Adam J. Powell, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Northumbria University, Newcastle

It’s a blustery October night in 1841, and though Liverpool is sleeping, Mrs Bates is very much awake. Before her, shining brightly at the foot of her bed, is an “open vision” of her friend Elizabeth Morgan, “standing in full view before her, clothed in robes beautiful and white”. The shimmering vision lingers for “some considerable length of time” before fading away. When dawn arrives, and after a fitful sleep, Mrs Bates is informed by a messenger that Elizabeth Morgan is dead.

People have reported spooky, spiritual and extraordinary experiences for centuries. Like Mrs Bates, those who claim to have communed with the dead have found themselves ridiculed as well as revered. Our recent research has revealed that mediums, mystics and psychics are more prone to certain auditory phenomena than the general population – which may play a role in their reports of communicating with the dead.



The experience of hearing voices is far more common than you might expect. Some studies have estimated that as many as 50% of people hear the voice of their deceased loved one during periods of grieving. Elsewhere, research from our team has shown that some Christians occasionally hear God as a literal auditory voice with which they can commune.

Claiming to be able to speak with the dead is often found to coexist with the beliefs of what’s called “spiritualism” – a quasi-religious movement based on the idea that individuals continue to exist after the death of their physical bodies. Their “spirits” may appear to or communicate with living persons, often called “mediums”.

Spiritualism can be traced back to the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who in 1848 claimed to hear a spirit knocking on the walls of their home in New York. Mediums that “hear” the spirits, as the Fox sisters did, are said to be “clairaudient” while those who can “see” the spirits are considered “clairvoyant”.

From Arthur Conan Doyle to the Kardashians, the possibility of spiritual mediumship has endured and captivated many. In fact, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), one of several contemporary spiritualist organisations in Britain, boasts a membership of at least 11,000.

What’s more, interest in channelling spirits, psychic predictions, and life after death seems to have been growing in both the UK and the US in recent years. But what’s actually going on when people hear voices they take to be the spirits of the dead?

‘I hear dead people’

Our new study of the clairaudient experiences of contemporary mediums is beginning to clarify why some people report hearing spiritual voices. We found that people who were more likely to experience “absorption” – a tendency to get lost in mental imagery or altered states of consciousness – were also more likely to experience clairaudience.

This finding suggests these people actually experience unusual sounds they believe to be clairaudient. But it doesn’t explain why they identify these voices with the spirits of the dead, which is the core tenet of spiritualism.

Two eccentrically-dressed women in a black and white photo, one reading the palm of the other
Mediums and mystics are enduring figures throughout history. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Significantly, nearly 75% of those we surveyed said they didn’t know about spiritualism or its set of beliefs prior to their earliest clairaudient experiences. This suggests that, for many, the sensation of speaking with spirits preceded knowledge of clairaudience as a phenomenon.

Some scholars argue that mediums later tag their voice-hearing to spiritualism as a way of explaining their auditory hallucinations. This “attributional theory” may explain why there are a large number of spiritualist mediums.

Grave concerns

Historical research suggests that emotional desires play a key role in conjuring such phenomena. In the past, this research tells us, when an individual felt melancholic and desperate for a manifestation of the supernatural, they would often record a spiritual experience shortly thereafter.

Guidance from a faith leader also seems important for conjuring the metaphysical. The work of Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for instance, highlights how one’s desire must be met with direction, noting the importance of training and instruction for the faithful who hope to have vivid encounters with the divine through prayer.

Colourful Christian chruch service with man holding arms out in prayer
The religious regularly report supernatural experiences, including hearing the voice of God. Paul shuang/Shutterstock

However, further research has shown that spiritual practice does not necessarily make perfect – at least not without a pre-existing tendency towards immersive mental activities. For mediums, this means that “yearning and learning” is not enough. Clairaudience may require a unique proclivity for voice-hearing.

Healthy hearing

Researchers are increasingly interested in the similarities and differences between clairaudience and several other forms of voice-hearing, like those experienced by people living with mental illness.

For example, individuals with psychosis also frequently hear voices. By comparing such voices to the clairaudience reported by mediums, researchers have already begun to identify important differences that distinguish clairaudience from the experiences of people living with psychosis. For example, mediums tend to exert more control over their voices – and they report very little distress accompanying the experience.

Back in Liverpool in 1841, Mrs. Bates “rejoiced in the vision” of her friend at the end of her bed, while Elizabeth Morgan’s husband is said to have received “consolation in the valley of grief” when he learned of the vision. Hearing the dead is not necessarily a sign of mental distress – or supernatural possession. For mediums, it may be a source of comfort – a quality of the way that they experience reality.

About the Authors

Adam J. Powell, Assistant Professor (Research), Religion and Medical Humanities, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Senior Research Fellow, in the Deparment of Psychology ar Northumbria University

Want to read about more work like this?

You can read more about the work of our Psychopathologies group in the Health and Wellbeing Research blog

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

Living with dementia during the pandemic

AUTHORS: Anna Svorenova and Dr Michael Craig

Medical discoveries, improved healthcare, and innovations in technology mean that people are living longer than ever. But this great news comes with a catch; age is the biggest risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term which refers to a group of neurodegenerative conditions that progressively damage the brain and impact a person’s thinking skills, often including their memory, attention, and language abilities. Current statistics suggest that around 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, and, strikingly, 1 in 3 people born today will develop dementia in their lifetime. By 2050, it is expected that there will be more than two million people in the UK with dementia.

For people in the later stages of dementia, completing even basic everyday tasks, such as counting money to pay for something in a shop, making a cup of tea, telling a story to a friend, or recognising a family member, might become difficult. Because of these challenges, people with dementia often rely on help from others. This can range from basic support to more complex care. In most cases, this help can only be delivered in person and not remotely or online. In-person social activities, for example, dementia cafes in the community, also play an important role in the social support network for people with dementia. 

These social support networks are important. In a recent study, it was found that people with dementia who live alone and are deprived of social interaction are more likely to experience loneliness, feelings of depression, and poorer quality of life. Social support and stimulation can also benefit thinking skills. A review of research findings found there was good evidence that engaging in stimulating activities can help to maintain and possibly even improve thinking skills in people with dementia. Amazingly, they suggested that social stimulation was more beneficial than any existing medications.

These findings show how important social networks and stimulation are in helping people with dementia to live healthy, independent lives. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any major disruption to these activities could have profound consequences. Unfortunately, the landscape for dementia support changed dramatically in early 2020.

On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would enter a national lockdown to reduce the spread of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Since then, further lockdowns have been imposed alongside more general restrictions, including social distancing and stay at home guidance. These restrictions have helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce fatalities, especially in high risk groups that included older adults and people with underlying health conditions such as dementia.

The wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia and their close ones is being monitored closely by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society. This is partially because many people with dementia have had limited access to in-person support networks and activities in the year since the first lockdown was announced. This has included, for example, a limited ability to attend dementia cafes in the local community and an extended period where visits to care home residents were not permitted.

We know that these types of social activities are important for wellbeing and thinking skills, so what impact has this had? It is possible that lack of social interaction and engagement has negatively affected people with dementia through increased loneliness, feelings of depression, and encouraged declines in their thinking skills. This possibility is in keeping with a report from the Alzheimer’s Society in June 2020 that suggested that people with dementia were the “worst hit” by the initial lockdown, where a striking 82% of people affected by dementia reported an increase in dementia symptoms. Also, 79% of care home managers reported that lack of social contact had contributed to health and wellbeing deteriorations in their residents with dementia. Continuing research in this area will be important to help us understand the impact of the pandemic and how to best manage future possible lockdowns to protect people with dementia as best possible.

The dramatic change from normal ways of working meant that dementia organisations and service providers were required to respond rapidly and deliver social support in new ways that could be as impactful as possible. While in-person support will continue to hold a special role in the lives of those with dementia, one success story is the ability to deliver Playlist for Life activities online and remotely. Playlist for Life uses music from an individual’s life to stimulate conversations, singing, and general wellbeing. A 2017 review of research investigating the effectiveness of music therapy in dementia concluded that it is “the only convincingly effective intervention” for reducing behavioural symptoms, including aggression and agitation. During the pandemic, the Alzheimer’s Society successfully converted their Singing for the Brain activities to an online format that can be delivered through Zoom or over the phone (“Ring and Sing”). The flexibility of this programme and ability to deliver it online offers new opportunitis for ways to provide social support for people with dementia.

What does the future look like for providing social support to people with dementia? While the wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia will not be known for a long time, green shoots are emerging. Vaccination rates are rising, and restrictions are easing, so it should be possible for people to return to attend regular social activities soon. It is hoped that we can also learn from the success of converting some social activities to run remotely. In the future, it might become standard practice to deliver a mix of in-person and remote social support activities that can improve accessibility for people who can’t attend in-person events. This could help these activities reach more people with dementia in the community. Research in this area could be of great benefit.

Dementia Action Week

This article was written for Dementia Action Week (17 – 23 May 2021), which is an annual weekly event to raise awareness of dementia. You can read about Dementia Action Week and how you can help here and by following #DAW2021 on social media.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

We are investigating whether people feel the coronavirus restrictions have affected their memory and general thinking skills. We hope the outcomes of this – and other excellent work being conducted around the world – can inform our understanding of the impact of social restrictions and how we care for people with dementia if we experience future pandemics.

The study is recruiting people aged 18 and over who live in the UK. You can read more about the study and take part here.

About the authors

Anna Svorenova is a 2nd Year Psychology student in the Department of Psychology. Dr Michael Craig is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Psychopathologies subgroup of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group. You can read more about the work of the group in the Health and Wellbeing blog

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Alzheimer’s Society (2020) Worst hit: dementia during coronavirus. Accessed on 20th April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-09/Worst-hit-Dementia-during-coronavirus-report.pdf

Alzheimer’s Society. Survey: Caring for a person living with dementia during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Online] 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/COVID-19-report-news

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