VT Center on Behavior & Health Experts Provide Tips for Getting Used to “New Normal”

May 22, 2020 by Allison Kurti and Stephen Higgins

UVM Vermont Center on Behavior & Health faculty members Allison N. Kurti, Ph.D., and Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., discuss how to manage the natural urge to socialize, how to understand our reactions and feelings, and how to establish new, healthy routines to help us cope with our “new normal” and help keep our communities safe.

With a majority of states relaxing restrictions on staying home, people may feel a growing temptation to return to their pre-pandemic lives. This temptation may be further amplified by the season’s warmer weather and an increased opportunity to gather socially outdoors. However, as Vermont Commissioner of Health Mark Levine, M.D., said during Governor Phil Scott’s press conference on Monday, May 11, “It’s important that we all do everything we can to keep this virus from sparking up again.” This includes continuing to practice physical distancing, wearing masks, and handwashing and other behaviors to prevent new COVID-19 cases. While most of us understand the benefits of these practices, it feels challenging to continue to adhere to these protective behaviors.

In the Q&A below,University of Vermont faculty members Allison N. Kurti, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, and Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health, discuss how to manage the natural urge to socialize, how to understand our reactions and feelings, and how to establish new, healthy routines to help us cope with our “new normal.” Here, they apply some of the principles of behavioral economics that they use in their research to help people develop health-based behavioral changes to reinforcing the behaviors that will help keep our communities safe.

Why is it so hard to continue practicing physical distancing even though we know it’s the right thing to do?

In behavioral economics, we explain this conflict in terms of “delay discounting.”  Delay discounting refers to the way that rewards lose value to us the longer we have to wait before receiving them. In our current situation, one example of this is that a healthy and economically secure community is more rewarding than a potluck dinner with some friends. However, because the former scenario is more delayed, it loses value, so many people would instead choose the more immediate reward of having our friends over, even though doing so could put the future health of our community in jeopardy.

How can we overcome our tendency to lose sight of greater future rewards, like a healthier community?

Essentially, we need to make engaging in the behaviors that promote health and reduce spread of the virus – like physical distancing – more rewarding. We need to identify substitutes for the tempting activities that bring immediate rewards but pose health risks. And finally, we need to develop routines for ourselves that provide the type of daily structure we had before the pandemic.

How can I make physical distancing more fun and rewarding?

While this will differ for everyone, there are outlets that provide each of us opportunities to engage in our passions that adhere to physical distancing practices. For example, if you are a fitness lover, several organizations, including the Greater Burlington YMCA, are offering free online fitness classes. If you love live music, there are numerous free online concerts offered online, such as at Live Nation. For museum enthusiasts, there are virtual tours available at many art and history museums all over the world. If you love learning, there are a number of free online courses in a variety of subjects for children and adults available from such resources as Khan Academy. People who want to help their communities can also volunteer safely, for example, delivering meals to elderly individuals who may be self-isolating. Chances are that whatever you are passionate about, there are outlets for pursuing that passion remotely, and that helps make physical distancing more fun and rewarding.

How do I find substitutes for activities that bring immediate rewards, but pose risks to the future health of our communities? What are some examples of good substitutes?

Organize a “happy hour” with friends or family using Facetime, Zoom, or other video meeting technology. There are virtual paint and sips, virtual cooking classes, and virtual trivia nights online through such sites as Travendly. For physically-distanced in-person gatherings, limit the number of people to 10 or less, plan to meet somewhere outdoors that is not crowded, drive separately, and keep a minimum of six feet between you.

How do we set up routines for ourselves?

Think of these routines as physical or mental checklists for how you will perform a given task. These checklists can support basic health hygiene behaviors, like handwashing and safely handling any items that we bring into our homes. We can also develop checklists that provide more general structure in our day-to-day lives. For example, developing a schedule for when we will shower, work, exercise, cook dinner and sleep. Since many of us are spending a significant amount of time at home, this will give us the same kind of structure that we had before the pandemic. Having structure in daily living facilitates stability and good mental health for individuals of all ages.

Are there any other tricks from behavioral economics that might help us?

In our research studies, we sometimes provide incentives – like a gift card or gym membership – to participants when they engage in behaviors that promote their long-term health, like stopping smoking cigarettes. Many people could benefit from setting up reward systems and treating themselves to something special at the end of a week after adhering to physical distancing recommendations. Websites, like stickk.com, allow people to set up these goals and reward systems, and provide an opportunity to recruit friends and family members to help keep people honest and hold them accountable.

Where can we find more of these fun resources?

Many sites can be found with simple searches on Google. Keep your eye on the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health website over the next few weeks for a new resources section that will include links to fun and rewarding activities that promote physical and mental health, maintaining a healthy diet, and creativity, all while adhering to physical distancing recommendations.

(This Q&A first appeared on the UVM Medical Center blog.)


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