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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Wendy Mendes, Emotions & Stress


Emotions & Stress

Wendy Mendes


Wendy Berry Mendes is the Sarlo/Ekman endowed Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Francisco. She uses a variety of techniques to study how the brain and body respond to emotion and stress states. Dr. Mendes is currently leading an app-based study called MyBPLab that collects daily responses of stress, emotion, and blood pressure and has enrolled more than 200,000 people.

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Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

It’s interesting to think about some of the positive aspects of the pandemic because what we know about human behavior and how we respond to stress is that there aren’t always negative effects associated with stress, and that’s where the idea of resilience comes from, that people have the ability to adapt to new circumstances. And even in research of maternal caregivers is the mothers with sick children, about 25 to 40% of women with sick children end up looking healthier because they find meaning in life and resilience. The idea that the pandemic could potentially create more resilient profiles and understanding of meaning in life of what matters. And what matters is our loved ones, the people around us, our society or communities. When we consider the positive changes of the pandemic, the fact that people are connecting with old friends with remembering the values of the family because now they can’t see them in some cases, helps remind us of the important things in life and so I think that is one of the positive changes that we could see.


What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

People are going to have to figure out a new normal of communication. Now, we’re lucky in a weird way that the pandemic hit when the ability to FaceTime or have Zoom conference calls, hit this new peak. We used to have these audio conference calls where you didn’t have the luxury of seeing people’s faces and knowing the natural pauses and always the funny examples of people talking over each other. So I think this ability to be able to connect with people virtually will help this positive change, help us connect, remind us that we can reach out. And no, you can’t touch your loved one, but you can find sort of solace in being able to communicate with them directly over video.


What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

When we’re thinking about negative changes, it’s important to think of the history of us as social beings and for millennia we have been used to and we’ve evolved to communicate with people face-to-face, in fact, it’s only in our very recent evolutionary past, have we had the ability to communicate over video or telephones. So we have evolved to see each other and not just see each other, but all of our senses smell, hear, directly touch. And so one of our critical sensorial features of communication is something like touch. Now, touch is powerful, especially when we think of it, in our smaller, close family circles. We’re used to touching people we love, our family. We know from work, for example, by Jim Cohen, who shows that stress centers and fear centers in the brain downregulate with human touch, and it doesn’t even have to be a loved one. It could be a stranger, so touch is powerful. And I think we’re going to have to get used to not touching people. Even the idea of a handshake, extending and touching somebody who you’re just meeting is useful. It’s a way to sort of break down this barrier of being strangers and something like that right now would be ill-advised. So we have to come up with ways to communicate, social connection and more, that doesn’t require touch, and that I think will be very tricky for people, especially more in a Western culture.

People are going to have to think about why something like face-to-face communication and touch, why that makes them feel better and trying to find a proxy that fits. Something that my friends and I have been doing, because we tend to be fairly touchy and we hug each other every time we see each other, is that we’ve been hugging ourselves. If we get together and socially distance in an open environment, and when we see each other, we come up to each other, we hug ourselves. It felt really silly the first time we did it, and now it’s become more natural. And it feels when we do it and we see each other simultaneously. That synchronized process has created that same feeling. Now, I’m not suggesting that’s what will fit for everybody. But I think we have to start coming up with these new ways to alter what feels natural into a new natural. And we know individuals have this ability to adapt to new naturals, they just take a few times and getting used to it and then try it and see if that is a good substitution for you.


What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

What this pandemic has done is created unprecedented amounts of uncertainty. So how do we start regulating uncertainty given that is our new normal? Here’s a couple things that I suggest. One, there are elements that you do have control over, there is certainty in your own small circle. So instead of a certainty about a vacation, which may or may not happen in three months, or what Christmas this year looks like or whatever the December holidays are, what that looks like for you, those plans may change. But what can you predict? What do you have certainty over? You can start creating small little traditions within your closest family circle and say “next month, we’re going to have game night for three nights”, or “next month, I’m going to start the outline of the book that I’m going to write.” Things that you do have control over, that’s where you’re going to have to start thinking about that’s where my certainty comes from. And there are elements of my life and the world that are going to be a bit more uncertain right now. And that ability to get used to uncertainty is very difficult. You have to give yourself a little bit of self-compassion and your family members and your friends who are all struggling with this same problem. There are some people who really value certainty and some people who are more comfortable with uncertainty and we have to also recognize that individual difference among the people we love.

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