By Indiana State University
Jan 30, 2020
Kevin Jordan discovered his interest in the relationship between psychology and religion as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, where he majored in history and theology.
“I happen to be Protestant and Notre Dame is Catholic, so I enjoyed seeing the relationship between people’s religious or spiritual identities and their psychological functioning,” said Jordan, now an assistant professor of psychology Indiana State University. “I became interested in the psychology of religion, and I realized at the same time that I really love working with people and helping people and wanted work directly with people to help them figure out how to live life well – emotionally, psychologically and physically.”
That’s how Jordan found his path to health psychology with the goal to study religion and spirituality scientifically.
“Religion and spirituality in American society tend to be looked at in a very interpersonal, individual perspective, so my research was geared toward looking at how religion and spirituality manifest interpersonally,” he said. “Using survey research, I’ve looked at the association of religiousness and spirituality with everything from health anxiety to social support and emotional outcomes, such as anxiety or depression, to also interpersonal functioning. I was trained in the interpersonal theory of personality, clinical, and social psychology.”
Compared to individual differences in religiousness (e.g., adherence to doctrine, beliefs about God) people who are spiritual (e.g., a sense of connectedness, harmony) tend to have certain interpersonal features associated with their spirituality that are conducive to physical and mental health, Jordan said.
“That’s what linked me to health psychology. Seeing people who have adaptive forms of religiousness and spirituality live longer,” he said. “One of the most robust associations in psychology of religion and health literature is that people who attend church or other religious organizations more regularly live longer lives. It’s a very consistent finding and there’s a big push in the field to try and figure out why that’s the case.”
In Jordan’s lab in Root Hall, he studies psychophysiological reactivity with assistance from undergraduate and graduate students.
“Essentially, when people get stressed, their heart rates go up, their blood pressure tends to go up, but there are individual differences in this reactivity. Some people’s heart rates and blood pressure will go through the roof, while others not so much,” he said. “What I’m trying to figure out is what variables predict those two different reactions because it’s thought that the people who get stressed out easily stay stressed out and that’s bad for heart and mental health and those individuals are more likely to not live as long as individuals who are perhaps more calm and collected.”
To conduct his studies, Jordan hooks participants up to electrodes on their chest and back, like a mini EKG machine, and has them engage in various social stressors and measure their psychophysiological reactivity to stress and see if there are certain spiritual or religious variables that predict who gets stressed out more easily compared to other individuals who get less stressed and or recover more quickly.
“You can’t make people more religious or spiritual, but we can better understand people who are and what it is about that that predicts their stress response. Furthermore, a related but distinct construct – mindfulness – could be something that you utilize with clients to help attenuate the stress response” he said.
One of Jordan’s graduate students in the PsyD program is looking at mindfulness and how it might reduce that stress response. The study will not only examine blood pressure reactivity, but it will also assess changes in the stress hormone, cortisol..
“Right now, I have five graduate students and three undergraduates who help run participants in the lab, so they deliver a script to keep all things standardized,” he said. “Then, they hook up participants to the electrodes, five on their chest and two on their back, and connect them to the blood pressure cuff and help run the physiological software and audio directions, then they help with the debriefing so people involved in the research learn something, too.”
Participants for Jordan’s research are most often psychology students. One hundred and thirty participants have been run through the study already, with the goal to run 145 participants before the conclusion of the study.
Each participant takes approximately two hours to run through the study, so Jordan is always in need of two or three students in his lab. Jordan’s research began almost four years ago and the first set of data is nearly complete.
He doesn’t do the work alone, though. Now first-year graduate student in the PsyD program, Joseph Twitdy started helping run participants in Jordan’s health psychology lab while he was an undergraduate at State in the fall of 2018.
“Running participants consists of three separate roles: collecting physiological data such as heart rate and blood pressure in our physio room, running lab participants through our experiment and being an evaluator,” said Twitdy, of Gary, Ind. “As a person who would like to contribute research to the field of health psychology, I think this research opportunity is preparing me to do research independently once I complete my degree. Additionally, as I aspire to be a clinical psychologist, learning how to apply health psychology research within a future practice.”
When the research is complete, Jordan expects to find that individuals who feel a sense of harmony with others and are intrinsically religious (i.e., see religion as an end in-and-of-itself) will have a lower stress response and recover quicker from stress, compared to people who perhaps believe in a harsh and punitive God or are religious for external reasons as a means to an end.
“I have a couple of publications related to past research that my current research is based on, so I hope to follow up on it. Ultimately, though, it’s the notion of intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing things,” Jordan said. “To the extent people are doing things for intrinsic reasons, it’s who they are, and it’s an end in and of itself, I hypothesize that they benefit the most physically and emotionally compared to individuals who do it for extrinsic reasons.”