As the most basic elements of daily life become uncertain amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of professors in Oregon State University’s (OSU) School of Psychological Science has put together a new course that helps explain what’s happening in our brains and offers some evidence-based coping skills.
“Punch Through Pandemics” will be offered as an online course for both OSU students and the public, starting March 30 and running through the 10 weeks of spring term. Students can pay tuition and earn credit or enroll for free and not earn credit. Members of the public can enroll for free.
The class will include a combination of scientific discussion of the effects of stress on the body, practical techniques to reduce stress and opportunities for students to provide real-time help for others, like volunteering for the crisis line.
“There was a movement across the country among psychologists to find a way to use psychology quickly in this moment,” said Kathy Becker Blease, director of the School of Psychological Science and one of three instructors for the new class. The team pulled the course together in eight days. “We wanted to get it out quickly because we knew there were both immediate and long-term needs.”
Regan Gurung, director of OSU’s general psychology program and another instructor for the course, said the pandemic creates a “perfect storm” of stressors, both short- and long-term, predictable and unpredictable.
“We don’t know how much control we have, and the amount of control we have is changing daily. Every couple days our control is eroding,” said Gurung, who is a social psychologist. “It’s really important psychologically to get that control back, and build practices and routines before it gets worse.”
When stress is sustained long enough to be considered chronic, it can start “whittling away” at the body, he said, causing physical problems with things like the digestive and reproductive systems.
Gurung’s instruction will look at different types of social support and how to cultivate it to help protect ourselves in times of stress.
Kate Gallagher, OSU’s Contemplative Studies Initiative coordinator, is the third instructor. Her teaching will focus on managing stress in a healthy way, especially in the extended period of social isolation facing Oregonians under the governor’s current “stay home” order.
Gallagher has extensive experience in isolation: she spent all of 2018 in solitude, practicing meditation eight hours a day.
“When I went into retreat, the biggest advice I got from my mentor was, ‘Stick to your schedule!’ She said it like 80 times,” she said. “That’s something I’m doing now, too. It’s just been a huge support in staying grounded during this time.”
Gallagher has also been a yoga teacher for 15 years. She will lead the practical and experiential elements of “Punch Through Pandemics,” teaching relaxation techniques like body scans, deep breathing, yoga and stretching, as well as the discipline of mindfulness to help train the attention.
Becker Blease will focus on how the prolonged trauma of quarantine can impact children and families. Of particular concern for her are families who are now isolated in unsafe situations, such as homes where domestic violence occurs, and how the sense of being “betrayed” by social institutions can compound that trauma.
Becker Blease will also work to provide students with practical opportunities to help others, such as participating in coronavirus-related psychological research studies, or training to be a volunteer crisis line text counselor and talking to people who are struggling.
The course is structured with four ways for students and the public to enroll. To earn credit for the course, PSY 499, students can enroll in the Ecampus course with no synchronous meetings, where students log in whenever they can to view materials, or an online Corvallis section with synchronous meetings, where all students log in at a pre-determined time and participate together. The Ecampus section is billed at the Ecampus rate and the Corvallis section is billed at the Corvallis rate. Each of these two sections can accommodate up to 500 students, so 1,000 students total can enroll.
Members of the public or students who wish to join a free, noncredit version of the course can sign up through Canvas and participate with a group following a similar schedule to the credit-bearing sections. They can also choose to browse the content instructors will be putting online for free and participate casually in discussion forums on the website, https://www.punchcovid19.com.