Gregory Lewis, an assistant professor of intelligent systems engineering at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, is part of a team of researchers who are exploring how people are coping with the stress, family changes, and health issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lewis is also an assistant research scientist and the director of the Socioneural Physiology Laboratory at IU’s Kinsey Institute, and he is part of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Kinsey. Along with TSRC director Stephen Porges and assistant research scientist Jacek Kolacz, the team has been conducting surveys to learn how a person’s history and body stress reactions impact how they cope with the danger and uncertainty of an ongoing situation, specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The research grew from an ongoing collaboration between Greg, Stephen, and the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium,” Kolacz said. “The human nervous system is tuned to detect safety and danger, integrating the body and brain through the autonomic nervous system. Shifts in brain-body states toward danger-responses—particularly in the long term—can compromise mental and physical health. Our combined research programs have focused on the development of self-reporting measures of physiological reactivity that are validated against lab-based measures.”
The measures have allowed work normally conducted in a lab setting, such as the activity of the autonomic nervous system, to move to survey-based self-reports.
“As the threat and urgency of the coronavirus grew, we were able to quickly respond to the pandemic by using the measures that we had developed and validated to understand the impact of trauma and the body’s stress response systems on reactions and coping during the pandemic,” Kolacz said.
The research provides not only an insight into the multiple ways people are coping with the coronavirus outbreak, but it also will be useful for therapists to better understand how to support their clients while also allowing people to better understand the own stress responses.
“We are all suffering due to the disruption to our daily lives,” Lewis said. “Separate from the real dangers of the virus, this new environment (working at home, people wearing face masks in public, news networks with constantly updating ‘counts’ of cases and deaths) presents a threat to our physical and mental wellbeing. I am proud that the TSRC is working to document how the situation is impacting our minds, bodies, and relationships. To borrow from Dr. Kinsey, our first responsibility as scientists is to be honest reporters of the facts of the situation. With a clear view of where we all are in this moment, we can ask informed questions about what can be done to mitigate the negative consequences of this pervasive stressor and we can objectively measure how we are coping in the months to come.”
Researchers hope the research will demystify the connections between mental health, bodily symptoms, and social relationships. The inability to fall asleep, digest food, or maintain a friendship can all be linked to natural stress responses to the COVID-19 situation. Developing suggestions to support people coping with changes to their daily lives is another aim.
“The collaborative nature of the work that is conducted at the Luddy School allows our researchers to quickly connect with other experts in a wide range of fields,” said Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at Luddy. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of challenges, but the cross-disciplinary work being done by Greg and so many other faculty members at the Luddy School has allowed us to take on a leadership role in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.”
Individuals interested in participating in the survey can visit this link.