Our psychology department faculty have been quite the frequent fliers this year.
Over the last several months, Drs. Michael Axelrod, Jennifer Muehlenkamp, Mickey Crothers and Douglas Matthews presented their research at conferences around the world.
Dr. Axelrod is director of the UW-Eau Claire Human Development Center. Through the HDC, he agreed to work with an area school district on evaluating the outcomes of its new kindergarten-fifth grade mental health program. The school collaborated with a local mental health provider in the hopes of improving students’ emotional well-being.The program was even more successful than Axelrod expected.
“I wasn’t anticipating that school-based mental health services would have such a profound impact on students’ emotional functioning,” Axelrod said. “We know that evidence-based mental health services can improve children’s functioning, but not usually to the degree that was reported in our research.”
In addition to positive outcomes in student’s emotional states, Axelrod’s research also found that the school-based program was more likely to benefit children with internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression, than those with externalizing problems, such as behavioral issues and attention disorders.
Axelrod further concluded that the program increased accessibility to mental health services for at-risk children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, which he believes is the most important outcome of his research.
Axelrod and his team presented their research this July at the annual conference of the International School Psychology Association in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Dr. Muehlenkamp is a founding member of the International Society for Study of Self-Injury and leading researcher in the field of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). NSSI includes the intentional destruction of body tissue without suicidal intent, often used to help manage overwhelming negative emotions or thoughts.
Muehlenkamp’s work in NSSI has been groundbreaking, and her most recent research has developed a new approach to understanding why people self-injure.
Her series of studies examined how body regard, the different ways in which people relate to and experience their body, could affect the likelihood of self-injuring behavior. Muehlenkamp said the research provided a new way of conceptualizing risk and treatment for self-injury.
“One of the most important implications of my research is that there is more to understanding why someone engages in self-injury than managing internal negative experiences, which is the dominant explanation,” Muehlenkamp said. “My work shows that it is influenced by a more complex set of factors than what many people believe. I think my work helps to challenge the status quo way of thinking about self-injury and expand research on this topic.”
Muehlenkamp presented her research in September at the New Zealand Psychological Society’s annual conference in Wellington, New Zealand. She delivered a keynote presentation on the topic as well as a daylong workshop on assessing and treating self-injury.
Dr. Crothers leads the Positive Psychology Research Team, a team of undergraduate students who focus on clinical applications of mindfulness techniques.
“When we are experiencing discomfort, we typically try to do one of two things: We either tend to ruminate about the unpleasant emotion or troubling thought, or we try to put it out of our mind. Mindfulness offers an alternative,” Crothers said. “If we can observe our experiences from a neutral stance, we discover we can tolerate uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations much better. We acknowledge them but don’t grapple with them.”
Crothers and her team found the three interrelated variables of anxiety, distress tolerance and the ability to regulate emotions effectively can all benefit from mindfulness practice. They then developed a six-session mindfulness intervention program designed to reduce participants’ anxiety by teaching a combination of cognitive therapy skills and mindfulness meditation.
The program was piloted last spring with a small sample of undergraduate research participants. They found that the participants reported not only significant decreases in anxiety levels, but also increasing abilities to tolerate distress. The team’s next goal is to modify the program to produce more significant increases in emotional regulation skills.
Crothers said the six-week program could provide faster relief to individuals with anxiety than other mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, which take eight to 12 weeks to complete.
“If we can refine a method that can bring appreciable reductions in anxiety in a shorter time frame, people with anxiety will get relief sooner, and with less cost and inconvenience than with a longer treatment protocol. Some may begin to experience early improvements after just one or two sessions of training,” Crothers said.
Crothers presented their research at the European Conference on Positive Psychology in Angers, France in July.
Dr. Matthews’ research explored whether the age of an alcohol consumer has an impact on how the individual is affected.
Furthermore, he and his team of undergraduate researchers examined how these differing affects based on age affect the neurobiological mechanism of alcohol abuse.
“I found it fascinating that the brain constantly changes during the lifespan,” Matthews said, “and this alters the impact of the drug across the lifespan. I got into this issue because alcohol abuse is such a common and dangerous issue.”
Matthews’ results led him to conclude that the federal government needs to re-evaluate guidelines for safe drinking based on the consumer’s age.
Matthews worked with undergraduate student researchers Meredith Watson (junior, psychology and pre-professional medicine), Charles Bakalars (senior, psychology and family studies) and Whitney Hasenberg (junior, psychology and family studies).
The team presented their research at the 2016 International Forum on Geriatric Health in Tai'an, China in September.
Photo caption: Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, associate professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire, presented leading research on non-suicidal self-injury at the New Zealand Psychological Society’s annual conference in Wellington, New Zealand.