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NewsMay 19, 2020

Balancing the benefits and risks of COVID-19 coverage

Behavioral Health alumna Brenda Stockdale recommends a ‘news diet’ to help manage stress in tough times

Headshot of Brenda Stockdale

How much bad news is bad news for your health?

Doctoral candidate Brenda Stockdale, who also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Lesley, when researching her qualifying paper in human development, found that “three important studies show how our immunity can be affected by the type and amount of media exposure,” particularly when fear is widespread.

Director of behavioral medicine at regionally and nationally recognized cancer centers, and author of the book “You Can Beat the Odds,” Stockdale came to her profession by some bad, health-related news of her own.

“I always say I teach what I need to know,” says Stockdale, who lives north of Atlanta with her husband and their rescue dog. “I was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition when I was young, so when psychoneuroimmunology (PNI — colloquially ‘mind/body medicine’) burst upon the scene I was all over it.

“My investigation led to intriguing research and a hospital-based PNI program called Getting Well, in Orlando, Florida. The founder and director, Dee Brigham, actually hired me as her clinical assistant — and that led to everything that followed.”

Stockdale was a scholarship student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, before she briefly relocated to Boston, and found Lesley, before eventually returning to the South. She earned her bachelor's from Lesley in behavioral science in 1993, followed by a independent-study master's degree in 2000 and, in 2002, earned a certificate in nutritional counseling.

“Lesley’s program in behavioral science for adult learners was a perfect fit for me,” Stockdale says. “Later, Ann Webster, the director of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medicine program for cancer, agreed to help direct my master’s degree –– individually designed –– at Lesley, all while living in Atlanta and working. The highly individualized program was very necessary to my work, and personally enriching.”

One of her Lesley mentors, Associate Professor Ulas Kaplan, indicates that the feeling is mutual.

“Brenda has been a source of support for her cohort members and other Ph.D. students,” Kaplan says. “With her intrinsic motivation and curiosity to expand her knowledge and understanding, she sets an example for doctoral-level learning.

“Brenda's holistic and inclusive perspective in her own professional area of expertise (mind-body medicine) is directly aligned with the comprehensive orientation of Lesley's PhD specialization in Human Development and Learning.”

Lesley alumna and current doctoral candidate Brenda Stockdale is interviewed by actress, filmmaker and health and wellness advocate Tekquiree on the latter’s YouTube channel.

Stockdale took some time out of her studies and work schedule to answer a few questions about how to keep from being overwhelmed by news coverage, and avoid the dread — even panic — it can engender.

Q. Can bad news really be bad news for our health? How?

A. “Bad” news, per se, is not necessarily harmful. Such news, in fact, could save our lives if there is a warning to be heeded, or an action we can take to help ourselves or save others. But findings show that it is the type and duration of news that makes the difference.

The limbic brain (which is wired to the immune system) doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination. The images on our devices and large-screen TVs have systemic effects. Hours per day of exposure to catastrophic images and eye-popping headlines can activate the amygdala — the part of our brain that responds to fear. If we need to run for cover, or fight a creepy stranger in a dark parking garage, that fear response could help save our lives. It prompts a stream of chemicals that can help us run farther and faster –– even causing our platelets to get sticky so we won’t bleed to death.

But over the long term, this same process weakens the immune response and promotes inflammation. Chronic activation of the fight, flight or freeze process doesn’t help us. Unfortunately, we can become habituated to this state and not recognize that we are in it.

Q. What is your advice for people trying to strike the balance between staying informed about COVID-19 and maintaining a positive outlook/disposition?

A. News is essential: we need to stay informed. We need access to accurate information in order to protect ourselves and others. But how much we consume and how often can make a difference in how we feel mentally and physically.

Everyone finds their own balance. Personally, that means a twice-a-day news check ­­— a review in the morning and a brief check later in the day — but never before bed! It’s also important to honestly assess our outlook; it’s so easy to get into an unhelpful spiral. Just giving ourselves permission to focus even briefly on the goodness around us –– the smile of a neighbor, the beauty of a sunset –– can make a difference. For example, evidence shows that by “taking in the good,” really focusing on it for 30-seconds, can release a bit of GABA (a calming neurotransmitter) and even help counter negative rumination.

One study by Ulas Kaplan showed that interrupting one’s day with brief (2-3 periods of mental imagery had beneficial effects physically and emotionally. So, deliberately changing the channel in our mind to focus on something upbuilding, gracious or even awe-inspiring can be refreshing.

Q. You also recommend a “news diet.” What is, that, and how do people make sure their news diet is intellectually nutritious?

A. One of my best friends, Nancie Talley, does this so well. She’s intentional about what she is watching and why. Is it useful? Is it enriching? Is it helping her learn more about other people and the world? Or is it merely fostering fear? She chooses wisely, based on her physical reaction.

Q. Have you, personally, ever have to put yourself on a news diet?

A. Yes. I remember being caught up in 9/11 coverage, literally tearing myself away from CNN. Since then, I’ve learned to be cautious but even so, I was initially held captive by the coronavirus coverage on my phone, and had to wrangle myself into a healthier pattern.

I work daily at keeping a spiritual focus. Today, with the magnitude of problems facing mankind, it is critically important for me to connect to a higher way of thinking, and seek answers to questions of meaning. Connecting with the wonder and awe of our planet causes me to think of the purpose of life — which affects everything I do, including my secular and volunteer work.

Q. What experiences at Lesley (and/or particular faculty members or coursework) informed or shaped your work in this regard?

A. I mentioned Ulas Kaplan, and certainly he, and his work as a developmental scientist, is at the very top of this list! He designed the human development curriculum that has been so meaningful to me in my work, personal growth and scholarship.