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Expert advice on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic

Shot of shoppers on spread-out chairs to prevent coronavirus spread
Shoppers waiting for take-out food orders at a mall in Bangkok, Thailand maintain a safe distance from each other as they sit on chairs spread apart in hopes of preventing the spread of COVID-19. AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
How do I handle working from home? How can I protect myself and my loved ones against COVID-19? What can I do to manage the stress, anxiety, and social isolation? Need answers to these and other questions about the pandemic? Northeastern researchers and faculty have got you covered.

How to talk to others about healthy habits like face masks and distancing

Students socialize from a safe distance on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Yo, dude, put on a mask!

William Sharp is an associate teaching professor of psychology in the College of Science at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Those words are probably heard dozens of times a day. The sight of someone without a face covering, openly coughing, or standing a little too close for comfort is enough to set off someone who can’t understand why another person isn’t following widely prescribed guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Often, this interaction leaves both parties in a sour mood.

No one could have imagined six months ago that this is how we’d be living. But the pandemic-induced stressors can be eased by being aware of our feelings and figuring out how to use them in the service of the goal you’re trying to achieve, says William Sharp, associate teaching professor of psychology.

For example, before heading over to a friend’s backyard for a social gathering, know what you’re walking into by having a conversation beforehand about what you’re comfortable with. If you feel okay about others not having a mask or being properly spaced apart, let that be known. Likewise, if those requirements are non-negotiable, share those feelings too.

Sharp, who is a therapist, provided tips to News@Northeastern on developing healthy ways to have productive, useful and non-confrontational conversations to diffuse those situations that have become part of life in a pandemic.

The healthy habits that we need to practice, whether they be mask wearing or physical distancing, are pretty simple. But the conversations that we might have about them can be a bit tricky. When we are preparing for an important conversation, under any circumstances, we’re grappling with two powerful forces—our personality and the circumstance itself. Can you explain how those might influence us?

I’ve always said we have to start with ourselves, because there are certain things that we bring into every conversation. The ways that we’re used to dealing with tension, conflict, feelings, and thoughts that we’d rather avoid—so much of that is our personality. So much of that is who we really are. And so, when we’re put in a situation, there’s that intersection of the real world and our inner world.

And that’s, I think, where things kind of get a little bit dicey for some people. And again, it depends on how flexible our personalities can be. So if we need to respond differently, can we, but certainly, we’re also presented with novel situations for which we have no kind of script that we normally can go with or think about. And so I think we have a lot of those coming up, seems like almost every day, recently.

Can you describe some of the different responses different personalities might take as their avenue to approaching a situation? Maybe humor, maybe a more serious or assertive approach?

When people are walking into a new situation they kind of are bringing themselves in, and then they may meet someone and they may go to their old default. So if humor, for example, is something that they’re very used to using and playing things off as a joke, and saying what they want to, humor is great.

I often find that within humor, there usually is a little bit of that aggression that somebody is trying to discharge, they’re trying to work something out of their system. And so we will see humor as a way, but other people are also much more comfortable just saying ‘Here’s what I want.’

I think we also can find people whom we would all find aggressive, people who just kind of barge right in and steamroll you. Maybe they feel to us like they’re entitled, but they’re just really good at saying what they want. So those are three kinds of a multitude of personalities that we can meet in everyday life.

You said we might not always have a script for every scenario. Can you explain how experiences that are pivotal, or things you might not have experienced before, can change our personalities in ways we might not expect?

This is always a big question in personality theory. How much of our personality is from the inside? Is it our genes, is it our hormones that are making us the way we are? How much of it is from the outside and the influence of the social world on us? And then, of course, every theory that is somewhere in between those two extremes.

When I teach personality, I just present all of them and let students suss out what they’re going to end up believing or not believing or liking or not liking. But we get presented with some of these situations, like the one that we’re in right now with COVID, where every single day seems to be a new challenge.

I know people who use aggression and others who are completely withdrawn and aren’t doing a lot. So there’s ways in which this type of a mass experience really lets us know that it’s not all just from the inside. There really is an outside world that’s influencing us. I think an interesting research question is ‘What’s going to happen a year from now?’ Are those changes permanent? Or are we just for the moment altered in terms of our personality and character?

So before we have an important conversation, a lot of people will cycle through ‘what if?’ scenarios or situations, and kind of pre-determine outcomes in our own heads. How can that hold us back when the actual time comes to get down to it and start talking?

I think that’s actually the best thing for us, to be aware that we’re always doing these self-talks. We’re always coming up with scripts, we’re always thinking of ‘How is this situation going to play out?’

It’s really good for us to start with becoming aware that we have that script and we have ourselves in every situation that we go to.

I think the problem becomes if we really then don’t open ourselves up to what’s happening in the actual situation. If you’re going off of a script, and all of a sudden you’re in a situation where that script is obviously not working anymore, it’s going to get awkward. Somebody could be really upset because you’re responding to things and you don’t seem to be listening to anything that they’re saying.

That’s when it becomes a problem, because the person doesn’t feel heard and you don’t understand why it’s not solely what you want.

Is there anything else that might make us apprehensive before an important conversation?

I would say out of all the feelings that we have at our disposal, the biggest one that people want to avoid, for the most part, is anger and aggression and hate—any version of that. 

There’s nothing wrong with those feelings. They’re totally natural feelings. The actions that some people take when they’re really mad and angry and feeling  an amount of hatred or aggression at someone, that’s when things can become destructive. But really, anger in a lot of ways can be in the service of helping you get what you want, which may also be what the other person wants as well.

Become aware of all your feelings, certainly the ones you want to avoid, and figure out how to use them in the service of what you’re trying to get. Avoiding them just ends up with those feelings becoming, in a way, stuck. And I think we lead a much fuller, happier life when we’re able to have all of our feelings.

The distinction between being angry and being assertive seems to be key there. Can you describe the difference a little bit more and why we can embrace feeling assertive and openly communicate?

I think some of the lines that we draw are somewhat arbitrary around that, because I don’t know in our unconscious exactly how different they are. They might actually be the same. I think the difference, though, is in how we use it.

Again, I think the outcome and being aware that you can use these feelings in the service of what you want is really important.

You say that our starting points for assessing our own needs, wants, desires or concerns is ourselves. Would you call that your golden rule for conversations?

Knowing yourself is really important, because if you know yourself, you’re going to be able to know what you’re bringing into a situation. And that gives you some degrees of freedom of maybe being able to do it differently.

If you’re not aware of what you’re doing, you’re just going to repeat the same things over and over and over. And you may believe that it’s all happening to you as if it’s totally coming from the outside, when the reality is there’s a little bit of you mixed up in this and that’s why the same thing keeps happening.

When should we start having those conversations about what our expectations are for mask-wearing, physical distancing, and other healthy habits?

I think we want to start having those conversations with ourselves. What is your tolerance of risk? Because let’s face it, theres nothing out there that is risk-free. Even prior to COVID, going out brought in certain risks. Now, there are much deeper, real risks that I think we have to contend with, and so I think we want to know what we’re willing to do.

Know what you’re willing to tolerate, what you would like. Then, prior to going to your friend’s backyard for that socially distant drink or snack or check in, have that conversation with them. Here’s what I would like. Here’s what I would be comfortable with. And then, hear what they have to say.

You talk about how fruitful conversations are, especially when they start prior to when we reconnect with people. Can you speak to situations where we might not have that luxury?

Wearing a mask when you go into a grocery store, let’s say, is something that is required everywhere that I know. So what you walk into in some of these situations are the people who maybe don’t realize they’ve just encroached into your six feet, or they’re even just too close, if you want to have even more distance.

When you go into the produce section and there’s this nice, beautiful pile of red apples, and you just walk up to take one. Now we have to kind of look because if somebody else is there, I usually just wait. I let them pick the apples that they want, and then I go up and take the ones that I want. But there are situations where you’ve waited, but now somebody else has come right up next to you and it’s like ‘What’s going on? I’m maintaining six feet. Why aren’t you maintaining six feet?’

I think we have to be okay, in those moments, with using our personality in a way to say, ‘I’m going to pick my apples and then you can have as many as you want,’ or ‘I’m almost done. Just give me a minute and I’ll be out of your way.’

It’s such a good time to be civil. We’re all under so much, it would be really nice if we could just be a little nicer to each other.

Can you talk about what a productive conversation around mask-wearing might look like for someone with whoever they’re living with?

I think those are some of the most difficult conversations. I like to start with myself. Why am I wearing a mask?

The science is emerging and changing a little bit every day with this, but what I really believe is I’m wearing a mask to protect someone else.

I think if I can say to somebody ‘Look, I’m wearing this because I really don’t want you to catch something if I have it. I am really doing this to protect you. Could you do the same? Would you be willing to join me in that?’

And if they try to drag you into another conversation, that’s when I find it really good to come back to, ‘Again, let me tell you why I’m doing it, because I really think this is important that I wear this mask to stop the spread.’

Its tempting, because were all human, to get into these other fights or to try to argue science. But if you can come back to what your real convictions areand none of this works if its inauthenticwhen you really do that I think you have a good ground to stand on.

You talk about the positive results that setting our parameters early can yield. How do those conversations, having them openly with those we interact with, put us at ease?

I think when you are left totally in your own head, you can really run into issues because it is totally in your own head and it may not be founded. You may have a better idea of how the conversation is going on, but the opposite can be true. You can have a very pessimistic view, like ‘This is going to be terrible, it’s going to be a big fight.’ And by having that conversation in advance, I believe all of a sudden, you realize, ‘Oh, I was worried over nothing.’ And how many times have we said that to ourselves?

I think that holds true in these mask and distancing conversations as well. Sometimes it’s worse in our head. So having it, you might be pleasantly surprised. If not, again, forewarned is forearmed. You know what you’re walking into, and you can be a little bit more prepared.

How can we get better at having these conversations that we encounter probably now more than ever?

I don’t know many people who would have predicted this is how we would be spending August. I can’t even believe it’s August at this particular moment. But I find practice is really the only thing that we can do. And the good news is, the more you practice, the better you’re going to be at having these really difficult conversations.

Because one of the things that happens, I find, is you become a little bit more aware of what it is that you want, what you’re thinking is.

And if you’re open to having these engaging conversations, again, you’re influenced sometimes by what other people say in one direction or another, and that helps you in future conversations be able to say, ‘I have thought about this. I just had this conversation last week.’

When I started as a therapist, there were these great little tidbits that my supervisors would give me. And I actually did write them in my notebook or on a little index card just because sometimes, when it’s so new and you think it’s great, you want to make sure you get it right. And in these moments, you know, your thoughts can leave you.

So sometimes if you need to write it down on a piece of paper, have it written in your phone or whatnot, it’s helpful to kind of have a couple of notes for yourself. I guarantee you though, over time, and with practice, it will become second nature. It’ll just be something that you’re very used to doing.

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Here’s how to fight COVID-19 from your kitchen

Keeping your food safe is a good way to contribute to public health during the pandemic, says Darin Detwiler, an assistant teaching professor of food policy. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Work at home, study at home, exercise at home. Cook at home.

As millions of people around the world try to keep a safe distance from one another, they are also cooking, prepping, and eating meals in their homes more than ever. 

Darin Detwiler is an assistant teaching professor of food policy and the assistant dean of academic and faculty affairs at the College of Professional Studies. Photo courtesy of Darin Detwiler

Darin Detwiler, an assistant teaching professor of food policy at Northeastern, joined News@Northeastern for a live Facebook interview to offer his insights into how to prioritize food safety at home, and how that contributes to protecting others during the pandemic.

Cooking at home can be one of the best ways to try to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, he says, and to “be respectful to all those who are working extremely hard to protect people.”

People should store and handle food safely to avoid food-borne illnesses, and they should also shop for groceries strategically to ensure a balanced menu and avoid creating food waste, Detwiler says. 

“We want to avoid that,” Detwiler says. “You’re having to go out to the store again, and you’re basically making it such that all the people who put so much effort into making sure you’re able to get that fresh produce, pretty much did it for it to be just thrown away.”

Do you have any go-to dos and don’ts for us when it comes to food?

When we look at the idea of why we’re going to the grocery store, we need to think about trying to balance some of our decisions. If we get food that’s all ready to eat—well, ready-to-eat food only lasts so long. If we get food that is all fresh and perishable, that’s great, except you can only eat so many heads of lettuce from the big box store. And you want to make sure that you have a balance of ready-to-eat food, fresh ingredients, and frozen ingredients that can be spaced out over time.

What are your recommendations within those different categories for what people should be grabbing when they go to the grocery store?

It’s just a good blend. When you look at the idea that you want to have fresh produce, you want to have lots of good fruits and vegetables because those are always good in terms of being healthy. Have a balance of them. The frozen foods can and the canned goods can last longer, but look at that kind of fresh produce and how you can use those, so that nothing’s going bad or to waste.

Can you walk us through how to take care of food when we get home?

While there are some new concerns, some very tried and true practice—as I wrote about in my book on food safety, which looked at 25 years of change in food safety culture—still hold true. This idea of cooking, cleaning, separating, and refrigerating. 

Separating: Using different cutting boards, using one for meat, and even using a color-coded cutting board and knife for your salads, your fresh fruits and produce and vegetables, and a different one for your meats. That way you’re not using the same cutting surface, the same utensils, and cross-contamination from raw meat to a salad kind of a scenario. 

Refrigerating: We sometimes take for granted the fact that our refrigerator has to be kept at a temperature. You want to make sure that your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or four degrees Celsius. The freezer should be at zero degrees Fahrenheit or -18 degrees Celsius. The idea of keeping cold foods cold, so that it’s out of the danger zone. This will make it such that it’s going to prevent spoilage, but more importantly, it will prevent foodborne pathogens, like listeria, e. coli, salmonella, from growing rapidly.

Then we move on to cleaning. We want to make sure that our utensils are clean, our areas clean. I’ve dealt with a certain situation recently, where someone realized that they were using a scale a lot more. And they were sick, and I found out through questioning that they were using the scale to measure out their raw chicken. But if you put raw chicken on that surface, you’re now cross-contaminating that surface. 

And finally, cooking. It’s very important that we’re using thermometers, understanding that there are different temperatures, different minimum temperatures to which we should cook leftovers to. 

A couple of other things are very important here. You should thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator or in the microwave, but you’d never want to leave some frozen chicken or beef out on the counter for 24 hours. It’s going to not be cold enough, and it’s not going to be hot enough. It’s going to be in that danger zone, and it’s not going to be safe. So make sure you’re thawing in the refrigerator overnight, marinating foods in the refrigerator. 

Even with shopping, there’s this idea of the two-hour rule. Food should never be out at room temperature, either after you go to the grocery store, or when you take out leftovers after it’s already been cooked—it should never sit out for more than two hours. You need to keep hot foods hot, and you need to keep cold foods cold.

Let’s say we store something in a big dish. How should we go about taking individual portions from that dish for reheating leftovers?

 You’re going to want to heat it up to at least 140 degrees, and having a smaller portion is going to allow you to do that. You don’t want to heat the whole thing of the remaining leftovers just to take a small amount that easily could have been put into a container.

If we’re heating things up multiple times, are we opening the window for that danger zone?

Yes, and I think we need to take this consideration too, because there are some people that will go and buy that  frozen lasagna we’ve been talking about. There’s a lot of people too who are going to go to their favorite local restaurants. Now you do a lot of takeout. The same kind of rules apply. You wouldn’t want to let that sit out for more than two hours. You want to refrigerate those leftovers, and you want to heat up the leftovers.

Other than paying attention to how we thaw meats, is there anything else that we should keep in mind when we’re loading our fridge with a fresh group of groceries?

Do whatever you can to keep your ready-to-eat away from raw food. That’s why containers are very important. You would never want to put some leftover cooked chicken in the same container as raw chicken. 

So think about where and how you’re separating your food, and even that idea of first in, first out. If you have an old head of lettuce from three days ago and for whatever reason you get a new head of lettuce today, because you weren’t communicating with the other person in the household, you want to use the older  head of lettuce before you use the new head of lettuce. 

The same thing can be said for pretty much anything in your refrigerator.

Can you just dive deeper into this idea of storing food and tell us whether all foods should be stored the same way?

There are so many variables there in terms of the packaging. I do know there are some of the more concerning types of foods.

Rice is something that you don’t want to have a lot of leftovers. Try to cook or order enough rice for you to eat that night. You know, dry uncooked rice can last a lot longer, but cooked rice in the refrigerator doesn’t last as long as a lot of people think that it will.

There are a lot of fruits of concern, but one that concerns me the most is cantaloupe. If you’ve got a large number of people in your house staying at home with you, and you can all eat a cantaloupe at once, great. But if it’s just one or two people in the household, and you’re buying a cantaloupe, you cannot properly clean the outside of that. And the longer you have it, once you take the knife through that cantaloupe, you are now opening up the opportunity for any kind of pathogens on the outside that can’t be really cleaned to go into the center of that cantaloupe, which has a pH that kind of supports rapid growth of pathogens. So there are some things like that, where once you cut it up, you want to eat it right away. 

Don’t assume that all meats and all dry goods, beans, and even fruits and vegetables are as safe and shelf stable as others.

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A guilty pleasure to get you through quarantine that’s actually good for you

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Along with sourdough starter and Zoom calls, video games are enjoying a resurgence in popularity among people of all ages who are craving entertainment and social connection while stuck at home in quarantine. 

Portrait of Amy Lu

Amy Lu is an associate professor with joint appointments in the College of Arts, Media and Design and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

As far as guilty pleasures go, says  Amy Lu, an associate professor of communication studies and health sciences at Northeastern, video games are worth indulging in for the benefits they provide to a player’s physical and mental health. One small caveat: She’s not talking about just any video game.

Lu is a proponent of active video games—games that encourage physical activity, such as Ring Fit Adventure—as opposed to traditional games that require the player to only tap buttons on a controller or screen. 

“This would be an excellent opportunity to try playing more active video games, or exergames,” says Lu. “Active video games have the capacity to induce moderate to vigorous physical activities and additional mental health benefits. They can serve as a fun alternative for people to exercise, especially under the current COVID-19 lockdown.”

Lu says active video games can effectively help people meet the recommendations of  the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, endorsed by both the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization (For children: at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise every day; adults: At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise throughout a week).

What’s more, active video games that contain a storytelling or narrative element, suggests Lu, may lead to increased physical activity levels and working memory. 

Her own research supports these claims. In one, her team recruited 110 Northeastern students to play an active video game called Kung-Fu for Kinect on the gaming console Xbox One. To gauge whether adding a narrative element to an active video game would lead to increased physical activity levels and improved cognitive function in the players, the researchers divided the students into two groups. One watched a narrative prior to playing, the other group did not.

What they found was that the participants who watched the back story prior to playing took 23 percent more walking steps and spent a significantly longer time doing moderate-to-vigorous exercise while playing than did the group that did not watch the narrative. Participants who played Kung-Fu for Kinect also scored far higher in a test of working memory administered after they finished playing when compared to participants who played a comparable sedentary game.

In another study, her team recruited 22 children between the ages of 8 and 12 and asked them to play Kung-Fu for Kinect. To rule out the possibility that the beneficial effect was caused by the addition of an animated video rather than the story itself, they created two animated videos, one that had a narrative and the other that didn’t. Again, the researchers found that the group that watched the narrative spent twice as much time on moderate-to-vigorous exercise than the group that watched the video without the narrative. 

This group would benefit most from playing active video games during quarantine, Lu says. After the pandemic forced schools to close, children are finding themselves bored at home, parked in front of their computers or televisions.

“Most are not following the exercise guidelines at all,” says Lu. “I think it’s less than a quarter of them who exercise enough. And especially during this lockdown when the schools are closed and the children have to stay at home, it’s more likely for them not to exercise.”

For those looking for inspiration and ideas, games and consoles such as Dance Dance Revolution, EyeToy, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Kinect are sure to activate the old sweat glands. Virtual reality consoles and games, such as Oculus Quest and Beat Saber, are also good options. And if you can’t get your hands on any of those right now? Online video platforms GoNoodle and an app called Sworkit are two excellent alternatives for children, says Lu.

“These would offer a really good alternative to parents during the lockdown, especially those who do not have a backyard,” she says. “Or those who live in the city, for example, and don’t have a safe space right now to exercise outdoors because there are a lot of people walking around or because the public parks have been closed.”

For all the benefits active video games offer, Lu emphasized that they should not replace outdoor physical activity and sports in the long term. For one, games don’t provide the same level of group dynamics that a team sport such as soccer does—or the benefits of fresh air.

She also warned about the effects of prolonged exposure to screens of any kind, especially on children’s vision and mental health. And as with any physical activity, active video games could cause exercise-related injuries, albeit comparably less so.

“Anything has two sides,” says Lu. “If people are playing too much of anything, that’s not good, active video games included. But it is still better than being a couch potato during these trying times.” 

So go ahead: Dust off your Wii and play without guilt. You deserve it.

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Perfect your video-conferencing skills with these simple tips

“OMG, I don’t really look like that, do I?” With the “new normal” taking hold and work meetings and class time moving to screen-sharing and video-conferencing applications, many users are confronting their on-screen reflections for the first time—and not liking what they see. From bad manners and “forgot-the-camera-was-on” moments to harsh lighting and z-grade audio, the last few weeks have been chock full of on-camera dos and don’ts for professionals and newbies alike.

With a few easy to do suggestions using items that you have around your house, News@Northeastern’s media professionals will show you how to smooth out the rough edges and improve your on-screen presence for the classroom and the boardroom.

Working from home? Here are some tips, and a look at the long-term effects of permanent telecommuting

For the millions of people who found themselves working from home almost overnight, professor Kimberly A. Eddleston has some advice: “Taking a nap while you’re working in your bedroom? That’s an occupational hazard.” And for people who telecommute regularly, she has some good news: New research suggests that people who routinely work from home are no less likely to be promoted than those who don’t.

Read more

Northeastern’s COVID-19 researchers in the Press