Experts and Alumni Shed Light on Building Social Networks in the Age of COVID-19

Claremont Colleges alumni, faculty, and students came together virtually on October 9th, 2020, to discuss something that we’re all thinking about during this time of isolation – how do we build and maintain our connections with others, especially if we’re never together? What are the key components to relationships, personal and professional, regardless of the mode of communication? Sponsored by the Berger Institute and CMC Career Services, this event featured four panelists: Dr. Saida Heshmati, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University and expert in positive relationships, Erikan Obotetukudo, networking and community building consultant and strategic advisor, Faye Sahai, Co-Founder and Partner at Mirai SV Global and Managing Director at Vinaj Ventures, and Stacie Yee, Partner in Los Angeles at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Panel topics included why positive relationships matter for resilience, important strategies for cultivating mentorship, friendship, and professional peer relationships, and even how we can leverage social media to build and maintain our networks right now. Both Erikan and Faye emphasized, for example, that you should “google yourself. . .take control of your digital brand” to proactively build your network online and show who you are. This is true for mentorship as well, according to Stacie, where being proactive and making sure you get what you want out of the relationship can help both sides. Saida explained the importance of all these connections to both our mental and physical health and how focusing on high-quality relationships is linked to longer lifespans. Attendees were able to absorb these pieces of advice over the lunch hour and come away with strategies and confidence for building their own networks in the coming months. One attendee notes, “As a young professional early in my career, I found a lot of their advice to be sound, and a lot of the problems they encountered early in their careers resonate with my current fears and issues. Their wisdom has appropriately shown me the ways to interact with people in different hierarchical positions.” Follow us on social media or on our website for future events!

Pandemic Stress: Expert Advice on How to Help You and Your Kids Cope

Individuals and families from every sector are feeling the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. From loss of jobs and finances to taking care of kids while trying to work at home to existential stress and worry about the health of loved ones, higher than average stress is now a daily companion for nearly everyone. Even simple tasks like getting groceries can be a significant source of anxiety. Some stress is not always bad; It can help to push us toward a goal or help us flee from danger. Chronic stress, though, is what we have to watch out for – the type of ongoing stress that comes from events like enduring pandemics. Chronic stress builds over time in our body and leaves wear and tear, called allostatic load, that can affect our cognition, our metabolic functioning, and even our immune systems. The good news is, there are strategies we can use to help control our stress and the stress our children face.

The growing science of emotion regulation, which includes a lot of the work we do here at the institute, has found answers to questions like, “Which emotions are okay to express? And how much?” or “How do I control my anxiety?” How we regulate our emotions can often influence how much stress we face. Recently, Dr. Stacey Doan published new research with colleagues showing that having a high amount of negative emotion can contribute to high blood pressure just as much as the absence of negative emotions (aka being stoic). That means you don’t want to completely suppress your negative emotions, even if you’re trying to hide it for others. That kind of suppression will contribute to more stress.

If you feel you’ve got a lot bottling up, one strategy is to use writing or art, such as starting a journal or creating a collage. If you’re more toward the other end of the spectrum and you want a strategy to control too much anxiety or negative emotions, one science-backed strategy is meditation. Meditation is often a tool for mindfulness, such as bringing your awareness to the present moment, helping you to focus on something simple like your breath. Neurological and behavioral studies have shown frequent mindfulness meditation to contribute significantly to better self-regulation, less negative emotion, less stress, greater health, more positive emotions, and even higher achievement.

Emotion regulation isn’t just about focusing on negative emotions, however. Sometimes we want to increase positive emotions, especially since they can work alongside the control of negative emotions to contribute to resilience. While positive and negative emotions influence each other, they are actually separate processes. Controlling negative emotions doesn’t always automatically boost happiness, so it’s good to focus on boosting those positive emotions separately.

One way is to focus on savoring the good moments. Any positive emotions you’re already feeling can be amplified by simply turning your attention to the moment – letting yourself be free briefly from distractors and other worries and aware of how the moment makes you feel. You can even reflect on a past moment: “I really enjoyed laughing with them earlier today – it was like a weight was lifted and I got to connect more with them” or savor a moment along with others.

As an added bonus, if you take time to regulate your emotions, your kids will benefit, too. Recent research by Doan and colleagues found that children’s distress tolerance and depressive symptoms were tied to parents’ own emotion regulation, especially the mothers’. “Like on a plane, parents need to put their oxygen mask on first. It’s truly important that we need to take care of ourselves, our emotions. If we do that well, it would be easier for us to provide the responsive care that we need,” advises Doan.

But how do we help our kids directly with their emotions? Some of the strategies mentioned above for you are ones you can help your kids with as well. Proper expression of negative emotions, for example, is just as important for kids. The wear and tear of stress can affect youth just as much as it can affect adults. Art is a great way for kids to not only express their emotions, but for parents to have fun connecting with their kids. Helping children to savor good moments, asking them how it made them feel and telling them it’s okay to express those emotions, is also a great strategy. Kids that have support in savoring and emotion regulation have been shown to have better adaptive skill. If your kids are very young, such as preschool age, it may be a better strategy to model emotion regulation. Young children tend to replicate emotional behavior, regardless of what is being said.

Soon our research lab will know even more about how to help families through pandemic-specific stress. Having received a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, Doan and colleagues are currently studying the effects of chronic stress and factors contributing to resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic is a stressor that is unlike anything that has happened in recent times. We know it has wide-ranging effects . . . Being able to understand its impacts now is crucial for informing future prevention and intervention efforts,” states Doan. In the meantime, existing research gives us helpful knowledge and tools to cope with this unprecedented stress we all face. Some of those strategies for both you and your child are:

To keep track of research news coming out of the Berger Institute, check our homepage or follow our social media.

Are Negative Emotions Bad for Our Health? Not as Much as We Think

From the angry CEO in the movies who has a heart attack to the numerous articles on WebMD suggesting why people should control their anxiety, negative emotions are commonly seen as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). While research has shown this is indeed the case for more intense negative emotions, the findings have been somewhat unclear for mild, everyday negative emotions. New research from Dr. Doan and colleagues suggests the relationship between negative emotions and CVD is more complicated.

The researchers gathered information from a large dataset where over 7400 British civil servants were tracked for 28 years. They looked at how negative emotions, such as depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and negative affect, influenced blood pressure at multiple points in time. The found that, as expected from previous research, high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms were associated with higher blood pressure (with the exception of negative affect). However, and just as important, they also found evidence that the absence of negative emotions also contributes to higher blood pressure as compared to self-reported moderate levels of negative emotions.

Thanks to this research, which was just published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we now know that you don’t want to completely shove away those negative emotions to avoid cardiovascular disease. Some of those mild, daily, negative emotions are a natural part of life and experiencing and being aware of them may be beneficial for health. This research gives more encouragement in looking at the whole person when preventing CVD, not just simple cut-off points, and clears the way for more informed interventions in the future.

Read more about research from the Berger Institute.

How the Science of Well-Being Can Help Fight Stress

5C students, staff, and parents attended a talk on the science of well-being on Feb 13th, Family Weekend. The talk was led by Berger Institute Director Dr. Stacey Doan. Attendees listened to Dr. Doan discuss the impacts of stress in modern life, as well as evidence-based methods for reducing stress and increasing positive emotions. Dr. Doan explained how our stress responses–fight, flight, or freeze–may have served us in the evolutionary past, but in today’s modern world, our bodies can’t tell the difference between a tiger and a test. “Your body will still react the same way – your muscles will tense, your system will be flooded with adrenaline, and your mind will still feel like you are under a threat, despite being safe in bed,” she stated. Chronic, repeated stress responses can cause internal wear and tear and lead to a host of health problems.

To provide a counter against the negative effects of stress, Dr. Doan also described some actions we can take to reduce our stress, or at least temper the potential for long-term physical harm. She explained that exercise can help relieve stress by releasing the physical tension that gets stored in the body as it prepares to fight or flee. Mindfulness exercises, such as yoga or breathing, can help train the mind to focus on the present moment and let go of distractions or stressful thoughts. Even displaying kindness, a way to bring about positive emotion in yourself and others, can undo some of the physical effects of negative emotions.

Keep track of future events.

Advancing Tech and the Future of Work: Experts Share Their Insights for What’s Next

Experts came together at the Athenaeum on Monday, February 10th, to discuss the evolving workplace and share their predictions about the future of work in the digital age. Panelists included Arjun Lall (’07), Co-Founder at Rocket, Faye Sahai (’90), Partner at Miral Global, and Stacie Yee (’99), Partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Ms. Yee shared her view of the future of work from a legal perspective, such as how biometric data collection is impacting privacy and how there is a renewed interest in unionization in protecting employees from an automated workforce. Ms. Sahai gave an overview of all the different ways work is changing due to technology, from a sharing economy to autonomous vehicles to 3D printing and encouraged the skills that will be needed in this era of change. “This decade will see more change than any that has preceded it,” agreed Mr. Lall, who gave advice on ways we can thrive in this new environment, such as being adaptable. David Day, Academic Director of the Kravis Leadership Institute and moderator of the panel, encouraged discussion on what we have to be optimistic about for the future and how future careers might change. The panel is part of the 20/20 in 2020 theme for the CMC research institutes and is a collaboration between the Berger Institute, the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and the Kravis Leadership Institute. Keep track of future events.