Dr. Judith Moskowitz (photo from Judith Moskowitz)
Anxiety and stress can be debilitating even in the most normal of times, but, with COVID-19 and all that it encompasses, we have all been presented with a whole other level of challenges.
In this context, the Jewish Independent connected with Dr. Judith Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. She is also the director of research for Northwestern’s Osher Centre for Integrative Medicine. Trained as a social psychologist, with expertise in stress and coping with emotions, Moskowitz started her career in the early 1990s, helping men caring for their partners suffering from AIDS.
“Before there were more effective treatments available, it was essentially a terminal illness,” she said. “Caring for a loved one with AIDS was really one of the most stressful events a human could experience.”
Initially, she said, “We’d ask them, ‘What is stressful about this?’ Then, we’d help them cope with it, really focusing in on the negative part the whole experience and, shortly after the start of the study, the participants started saying, ‘You’re not asking us about the good things in our lives’ … which surprised us, because we’re coming at it from a very much stress and coping way.
“So, we listened to them and started then asking, ‘OK, tell us something positive that happened in the last week.’ And, almost in every single interview, even if their partner had just died, they could talk about something positive … often something small … having to do with something else going on in their lives not necessarily directly related to their care-giving.”
This new perspective helped direct Moskowitz onto a path looking at the positive things within stressful life events, allowing positive emotions to be expressed along with the negative.
“This isn’t about pretending things aren’t happening,” she stressed. “Rather, it’s about knowing that, even when times are really dark and you may be experiencing a lot of negative emotions and a lot of stress – maybe even depression or anxiety – you also have the ability to experience positive emotions as well. So, if you can experience the positive alongside those negative emotions, you’ll be able to cope better.”
Moskowitz and her team put together a program that includes eight to 10 skills, depending on the target group, toward helping participants increase their daily experience of positive emotions – stopping to notice, savour and capitalize on those good aspects.
“When things are stressful, it can be hard to see the positive things going on,” said Moskowitz. “We help people realize there’s usually something positive happening … you just have to be able to notice it.
“Things might be really horrific, but your dog is sitting next to you, really loves you, and it’s very sweet. So, just taking a moment and petting your dog, and then maybe telling someone about it – that would be noticing something positive in your life and savouring or capitalizing on it,” she explained. “We’ve been able to show that people who learn these skills and then practise them have better emotional well-being. They’re less likely to be depressed. In some samples, we were seeing some physical health effects. So, through clinical trials, we showed that the program seems to be helpful.”
When COVID first hit, Moskowitz was inundated with questions about how to cope better with stresses associated with the pandemic. The bottom line is that these skills transcend any particular stressor and can help no matter what the situation.
“For COVID, my advice is the same as it is for coping with breast cancer, diabetes, depression, or being a high school student,” said Moskowitz. “Learn these skills, try them out, see which work for you and, then, keep doing them. It’s like a physical activity, something you need to keep on doing. You can’t just do it once … similar to gratitude, noticing the good things, being thankful … it doesn’t work for you to just be grateful once and then be done with it. You need to take it up as a habit, and that can help you cope with COVID-19 or adapt with whatever kind of life stress you’re facing.”
Moskowitz also teaches the importance of doing acts of kindness. The idea is that, when you do something nice for someone else, it helps you feel better, too. Such an act can be as simple as paying for the coffee of the person in line behind you. Or looking someone in the eye and thanking them, making them feel appreciated and seen. And there are many types of acts that can be done without the receiver knowing the kindness came from you, if you’d rather remain anonymous.
“Doing these acts helps you feel better in a situation where you might think, I’m suffering here, I’m having a really hard time … but, knowing you can do something to help someone else can help your own well-being,” said Moskowitz.
Another skill she pointed to is “positive reappraisal.” When something stressful happens, take a moment to reframe it or think about it in a way that makes it seem not so bad or even like it’s positive thing – find the good in it.
“Sometimes, it takes the form of actually learning something about yourself – like you find that you are stronger than you’d thought you were,” said Moskowitz. “My favourite positive reappraisal is, ‘Well, that could have been worse! It’s bad, but it could have been worse.’
“An extreme example of this happened when we were doing some work with a gun-violence prevention group here in Chicago, teaching them these skills. They work with young men who are at high risk of either being victims or perpetrators of gun violence. The people they work with often are involved in a shooting. [The group members] will talk about it and will say, ‘One of our clients was shot and is in the hospital, but he’s alive.’ Having one of your clients shot is pretty bad and very stressful, but they’re able to say, ‘You know what? It could have been worse. He could have died, but he’s still alive.’ So, that’s a very vivid example of positive reappraisal.”
Moskowitz stressed that there is no one technique that works better than all others. She said, with regard to various anxiety- and stress-reducing methods, it is very much a matter of what fits best for each individual in a particular circumstance.
For more information visit moskowitzlab.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.