Associate Professor of Psychology Kate Sweeny has conducted groundbreaking research on anxiety, worrying, coping and the stress that comes with awaiting news. She has published studies observing reactions from stress or anxiety-inducing situations, such as graduate students awaiting results of their bar exams and patients awaiting biopsy results, and proposed ways to minimize these stressors both within ourselves and those we interact with. Her most recent review paper, which has been cited by NBC News and New York Daily News, discusses the possible upsides to worrying and the various ways it can serve in our favor. Beyond the lab, she works as a University Honors faculty fellow through which she assists students in completing their Capstone projects.
The discussion has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jasmine: What made you interested in examining emotions, such as anxiety and worrying?
Prof. Sweeny: There are two ways I can answer that. First, I had a lucky incident in my senior year of college. I knew that I wanted to go into social psychology, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study. The person who ended up becoming my graduate advisor came to give a talk about bracing for the worst, and I thought it was really interesting, so that’s what I ended up doing in grad school. The other answer is that I’m a total worry-wort. We often use this phrase, “research is me-search,” and that’s very true for me. My research is something I very much relate to.
Jasmine: How does your research apply to helping people who are undergoing these problems?
Prof. Sweeny: Most of the research we have done so far within this area — such as with uncertainty, worrying, anxiety — is more about understanding the process: What makes waiting hard for people, who finds it particularly hard or not-so-hard, what are people trying to do to cope during these kinds of experiences? A lot of our early work is not necessarily about making it easier but about understanding what’s going on in the first place. Even that kind of information can be useful for people in letting them know that their experiences are normal — for example, that everyone experiences an emotional rollercoaster when they feel uncertain.
Jasmine: In your most recent review paper that was published in April 2017 about the possible upsides to worrying, you discuss how even that panicky feeling can serve as a motivator and a buffer.
Prof. Sweeny: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s particularly true when you have some sort of control over the situation. For example, if you’re worried about developing skin cancer, research shows that you will wear more sunscreen, or if you’re worried about getting in a car accident, you’re more likely to wear your seat belt. In these situations, worry can literally save your life — but it’s also helpful in situations when you’re just stuck, like when you’re waiting for college admission decisions. Even then, worry can be a motivator to prompt you to prepare for the worst in case bad news does come.
The other benefit of worry is that it can be so unpleasant that it makes every other negative experience feel not so bad. So if you’re really worried about whether you’re going to get into grad school and find out you didn’t get in, it’s certainly unpleasant, but at least you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
A lot of our early work is not necessarily about making it easier but about understanding what’s going on in the first place.
Jasmine: How were you able to carry out your research, such as with finding subjects and preventing bias?
Prof. Sweeny: We do research in a few ways. I have a research lab on campus, where we set up situations that we’re pretty sure will make people worry and then observe how they respond. However, it’s almost impossible to recreate in the lab the kind of worry people experience in real life, so we also find people who are going through difficult things in their lives and study their experiences. For example, we do studies in a hospital nearby with patients who are undergoing a biopsy.
Jasmine: For the cases of compiling subjects for an experiment, what kind of advice would you give to a psychology student who might want to follow the same line of research?
Prof. Sweeny: I encourage students to find someone whose research they find interesting and to go and talk to them to find something you’re both interested in, rather than trying to come up with an idea entirely on your own. That can be a nice way to do research because the people you need help from are really excited about the project too, so then you can benefit from their enthusiasm and excitement. It also takes the pressure off of coming up with a brand new idea, which is even hard for graduate students — and faculty sometimes! You may also be able to work with data the professor already has, which makes the process much quicker and easier while still allowing you to ask interesting questions.
More generally, my advice is to get involved in research, get to know a lab, and get to know a faculty member. Then, if you need to do an independent project for the Honors Program or just because you want to, you’re already halfway there.
Jasmine: What about the psychology program and the staff, faculty and students at UCR do you find has been particularly helpful to your research and makes the school unique?
Prof. Sweeny: I find my department and colleagues and really the whole university to be very open-minded about interesting, unusual and creative research. Some departments get a little closed-minded about what good research looks like. Much of the research that I do is not mainstream, typical psychology research, and so it’s been fun to work in a place where my colleagues read my work and think it’s really cool as opposed to thinking, “What is this? This isn’t in any textbook.”
The other thing that may be more important for students to hear is that the student body at UCR is so unique, and I have loved having students in my lab who may be the first person in their entire family to go to college and are just so motivated. I’ve worked with dozens of students who I’ve watched go on to Ph.D. programs when they were the first ones in their family to even go to college. In other universities students can be entitled; they seem to take their presence there and the opportunities they have for granted. Here, the students are so eager to learn and to have opportunities to do research, and having those students involved makes my research better.