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We're heading back to normal … but how quickly?

May 14, 2021

ASU professor discusses the psychology of reentering society as COVID-19 cases drop and US inches closer to herd immunity

It’s President Joe Biden’s goal to have 70% of all U.S. adults given at least one vaccine dose by July 4 so that life in America can start to look and feel normal again after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be sure, it’s an aggressive goal but one that is certainly doable if the supply chain remains steady and people opt for the shot. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recently announced that fully vaccinated people could now resume most activities without pre-pandemic precautions like face coverings indoors.

But how will the population feel when they actually have go back to work, head into the classroom and in a variety of other ways resume their “normal lives"? Will they rush back to their old ways or has the pandemic caused millions to become more cautious and circumspect?

ASU News spoke to Michael Varnum, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology about the how people might be feeling as these changes unfold.

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Michael Varnum

Question: Now that people are getting their vaccinations, do you expect there to be a rush to reintegrate into society or will people be reluctant to resume pre-pandemic ways of living?  

Answer: I think the vast majority of people will fairly quickly shed habits they picked up during the pandemic to avoid infections. Humans have a pretty strongly hard-wired need to belong, to connect to others and to experience physical contact and touch. It's normal for us to see each others’ faces, to travel, to share meals and these things are arguably part of our programming, so to speak. I think we are already seeing this return to normal among many, many vaccinated people. It’s also worth noting that a segment of the population didn’t do much differently at all during the pandemic, so one wouldn’t expect them to have much difficulty with it either.

Q: Why did we as a society initially anticipate that reintegration would be a strange or difficult transition?

A: Researchers who study prediction, people like Philip Tetlock, Daniel Kanheman and their colleagues, have found that we tend to be pretty bad at predicting the future. One reason for this is that we fall prey to something known as focalism, a tendency to put too much emphasis on current conditions or highly salient events when trying to predict future developments. I remember lots of popular press speculation about a "new normal," that would be radically different. With roughly half the U.S. population vaccinated and cases on the decline here, it strikes me at least, that the "new normal," is shaping up to look a lot like the “old normal.”

Q: Will there be a segment of the population who don’t feel comfortable reintegrating? Who might they be and why?

A: There are of course individual differences in the speed at which folks are reacclimating, and some, for example, those who were high in germ aversion or perceived vulnerability to begin with, might take longer than others to be comfortable returning to a more normal mode of life. Similarly, if I had to guess, people higher in the personality trait neuroticism might also be more hesitant to return to pre-pandemic ways of life.

Q: You've been running studies trying to assess psychological changes as a result of the pandemic. What are you finding about the how pandemic did or did not change us?

A: Although many aspects of life changed — masking, virtual work and schooling for most, restrictions on travel, shortages in toilet paper — surprisingly, our data and findings from a number of new studies coming out, suggest fairly little changed in terms of people's psychology. For example, in one study looking at basic social motivations — things like making friends, gaining status, finding mates, caring for children — among more than 15,000 people in dozens of countries, my colleagues and I found virtually no changes from pre-pandemic levels in the importance of these goals, with the quite sensible exception of an increase in the motivation to avoid infectious disease. 

In another study, focused on assessing the accuracy of people's predictions for COVID's societal impacts last year, my colleagues and I found that people, both behavioral scientists and regular folks, vastly overestimated the impact of the pandemic on trends in things like well-being, loneliness and political polarization. Interestingly, our participants’ forecasts also systematically underestimated the increase in violent crime that occurred during this period. Again, a number of other studies are finding generally similar results — much less changed than one might have guessed. Certainly, much less than I guessed back last spring.

Q: Do you think any of the changes in our lives — either personal or work — will stick going forward, or are there things we might consider holding onto?

A: This is an interesting one. Just anecdotally, I've heard some people say they actually plan to keep wearing masks in places like grocery stores, not so much out of COVID-related concerns but so they can skip the annual cold or flu they used to get. I think there is also some reason to suspect that an increase in telecommuting, which the pandemic accelerated, may stick with us to some degree. Some people genuinely like it and it reduces overhead for many employers. It also arguably has some environmental benefits. That said though, I'd guess that most people if given the choice will prefer to work, study and socialize in person, given that deep need we have for human contact and connection. I also think a lot of us are fairly sick of Zoom and other videoconferencing software at this point and will be happy to have it play less of a role in our lives. But then again, my own work suggests that you should take my predictions with a grain of salt.

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Reporter , ASU News


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Navigating post-pandemic life through mindfulness

May 14, 2021

ASU expert offers mindfulness strategies that will help in this time of transition

This week, Nika Gueci, executive director at the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience at Arizona State University, is speaking at the "Mindfulness for Healthcare" virtual summit. The conference brings together academics, health care professionals, scientists and experts in a virtual setting to discuss how mindfulness practices can support a more equitable, caring and compassionate health care system.

Though the summit is geared toward health care leaders navigating the post-pandemic landscape, the mindfulness strategies Gueci will offer apply to any industry. ASU News spoke with Gueci to learn how mindfulness can help individuals during this time of transition, as well as catalyze change within organizations and systems. After a year marked by a pandemic, tumultuous election and intense social reckoning, Gueci offers guidance on how mindfulness can help move us forward as a nation.

Question: Mindfulness is often recommended as a tool people can use to better manage stress and difficult feelings and situations. This last year provided plenty of opportunities to test that out. As we begin to move beyond the pandemic and life returns to some semblance of “normal,” how can mindfulness support this return?

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Nika Gueci, executive director at the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Answer: Our current environment is one of transition. We’re going through so much ambiguity about what will life look like in this post-pandemic landscape — and we’re going through this both together and apart. Together because the threat on our health and well-being is real and relations between one another have come back to the surface in a striking way. Alone because life experiences are different for everyone, as the prevalence of racism, health injustice and disparities are not felt in a similar way throughout our society.

We are living in a new reality where there is so much unknown — we’re constantly faced not just with ambiguity, but with risk — risk in going outside of our houses, in navigating social situations. Everyday situations can be perceived of as challenges faced with risk where we have to weigh the pros and cons every time we make seemingly small decisions. This chronic stress stemming from the unknown can lead to a deep fatigue.

Mindfulness, or an intentional presence in the moment, can lead not only to stress reduction, but also to emotional regulation. Knowing that this current environment is challenging can also help us be kinder to ourselves. Maybe we don’t push ourselves as hard as we did before — and that’s OK! Go easy on yourself, try not to beat yourself up — bringing in compassion may open up some of that brain space that stress and anxiety closes up, thereby allowing more room to navigate the uncertainty that transition can bring. 

Q: 2020 was a year of reckoning for individuals and organizations around topics including race and privilege, social justice, inequality and so much more. Where does mindfulness fit into the narrative of this country in 2021? What role can it play in moving the nation forward?

A: One of the Attitudinal Foundations of mindfulness is acceptance. Acceptance, in this sense, means seeing things for what they are rather than what we want them to be. Mindful acceptance does not mean resignation. We can actually utilize mindfulness as a driving force and a tool for advocacy. Mindfulness can promote awareness and sensitivity to existing societal problems, discernment of the kind of impact we want (and are able) to make, and a targeted focus for our efforts. 

Mindfulness does not negate action. In fact, one of the falsehoods of society is that we are told that we need to choose, that we need to be either this way or that way, that if we believe this, that we cannot possibly believe that. This is a dangerous and restricting untruth. We can hold so much at once. We can be both courageous and vulnerable, angry and composed, peaceful and dynamic. Mindfulness can help us navigate our way across these spectrums and respond in a thoughtful way.

This summer, the center’s “Caring and Connection Initiative” will focus on these topics. Live YouTube sessions will be led by Tiara Cash, culture and equity specialist, who will discuss mindfulness through the Equitable Mindfulness (EM) framework. The EM framework that Cash developed is intended to create social transformation through the practice of mindfulness. 

Q: How has this last year challenged you, and what has it taught you?

A: This has been a tough year where I, along with millions of other people, have experienced uncertainty, grief and loss. Life gives us lesson after lesson, and many times, those lessons feel pretty awful. Fear and pain are emotions that are fiercely personal when going through them and suffering can be an isolating experience. 

This past year has reminded me that almost everybody has experienced deep pain. As I emerged out of the private wilderness of grief, I saw that most everyone in this world knows what it means to lose something or someone that they love, what it means to experience trauma, what it means to want to escape. Mindfulness of this connection is where we meet as humans. This is where pain is transformed — into connection, support and an understanding of the human condition. This is the place where I find resilience in myself and in others — being mindful and compassionate of my own and other’s experiences.

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Katherine Reedy