Stacy Freiheit, Associate Professor of Psychology, trains the next generation of mental health care providers to be inquisitive researchers, sensitive observers, and keen auditors of evidence-based practice.
Stacy Freiheit: The value that I want to impart is that people become aware of their own values so that students are able to articulate what their values are. Once they know what their values are, that can help them in their interactions with other people, to recognize that not everybody is going to have the same values, they’re not going to rank-order their values, I guess, in the same way and, yet, how to still be open to other value systems, other ideas and how to work with other people come to consensus and figure out how to be effective together.
Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leaders. I’m Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it’s my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I’m honored to work with every day.
Catherine Day: I’m Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast, and, today, I’m speaking with Stacy Freiheit, associate professor of psychology at Augsburg, and we’re going to focus a bit on some research and how it connects to students’ learning and their direction.
Stacy Freiheit: Thank you.
Catherine Day: When did you come to Augsburg? What was your path here?
Stacy Freiheit: I started at Augsburg full time in 2005, and this came after a period of time when I was working as a part-time professor at some institutions in the Twin Cities. I had young children at home, and so I was a stay-at-home mom for a little bit of time after I’d earned my Ph.D. and loved teaching, loved research, so I continued part time and knew that, at some point, I wanted to go into full-time teaching and research, and so it was in 2005, when my youngest was in kindergarten, that I was very fortunate that Augsburg had an opening, and I started in a limited-term position and I was hired for a tenure track position in 2006, and I’ve been here ever since.
Catherine Day: Where did you first discover your passion for the field of psychology?
Stacy Freiheit: The first time I took a psychology course was at junior in high school, and I really loved the course and, at that time in my life, that wasn’t saying much because I loved just about every course I was taking in high school, and then same in college, but when I was a senior in high school, one of my friends was having a challenge, and so we talked about it, and she came back to me a few days later and said, “One of the things that you said I really thought about,” and she said it was very helpful, and that’s just a moment that I still remember today, that sometimes the things that we say, things that we do when we listen to other people could be really impactful and helpful.
When I was a sophomore in my undergraduate years, I had to literally sit myself down and decide what it was I wanted to major in and what I wanted to do. It was a time to declare a major, and so that was one of the moments in my life that I turn back to and realize I’m one of those stereotypical people in mental health, the people that friends come and talk to, and you’re known as the listener in the group. That, combined with that moment with my friend, with my interest in psychology classes and with just this belief at the time, which has not been disproven since, that people are fascinating, there are always be things to learn, there will never be anything stagnant about psychology and the study of psychology and helping people that I decided I would declare psychology as my major and do what I needed to do to earn my doctorate in clinical psychology. I was fortunate and able to do that.
Catherine Day: I think Augsburg as a university tends to embrace things that not everyone embraces, and so when I think about our culture around mental health and that there’s a great deal of activism right now to make it normal to address mental health issues, to look at our human operating system, what’s the position you take if you will? As you are a leader in the field of psychology, how do see it?
Stacy Freiheit: I think that there are some really wonderful moments and opportunities to learn again from people across a variety of cultures and traditions in terms of understanding mental health. One of the things that’s really fascinating about being a professor at Augsburg is we do have students from a variety of cultures who will talk about in an abnormal psychology class, “People in my community, we don’t think about mental health this way. We don’t think about mental treatment this way,” and yet they’re sometimes in these courses recognizing that there might be some value to the mental health system as it’s constructed right now and that maybe this is something that they would like to bring to their community, a recognition that some of these things maybe are concerns for an individual and that there are some interventions other than maybe traditional interventions that could be helpful, so it just expands the range of potential opportunities for someone who might be struggling, again, with recognition that some of those interventions may work and some may not.
Catherine Day: Is the field of psychology popular here at the university? Is it a high demand?
Stacy Freiheit: It is one of the more popular majors, and I don’t know exactly where we rank, but I think we’re second or third maybe in terms of students who are majoring in psychology. We do have a number of students who will go into the field and will go on to graduate school, so, in particular, the students I tend to work with in my lab, about 40% of them go on to graduate school and earn a master’s and work in mental health or a few of them will also go on to earn their doctorate and typically work in a counseling or a clinical capacity, and then are a wide range of things that students do outside of that, so there are a number of things you can do with a psychology degree. We have students who go into business and to management, into lots of human service capacities, but just a wide range of things.
Catherine Day: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you have found that you are learning from your students, what do they bring to you?
Stacy Freiheit: They bring a lot. One of the things that’s really exciting in my research lab and the students I work with on research projects is sometimes they have an idea that they want to pursue, and so they bring these ideas that I never would have thought to study, and I let them know I don’t have expertise in this area. I’m certainly willing to do this project, but if you’re looking for an expert, I’m not going to be that person right now, and so, together, we pursue the projects. I can certainly help with the research skills and what needs to happen as far as the project goes, but we learn the content together, so I’ve learned about things like spiritual struggles. I’ve learned about sexual assault disclosure and factors related to reporting sexual assaults. I’ve learned about emotion regulation and substance use.
That’s just a sampling of some of the topics of late, but it’s really interesting to see what excites and energizes the students and just follow some of those questions in addition to the ones that I’m interested in. I have two main areas that I’m interested in, and one is this area called evidence-based practices for anxiety, and so one of the things I take a look at is how well the lab-based interventions, those that are shown to be effective in university lab settings. How are often are those being used in practice outside of the university setting, so, in clinics and in private practice, is the science reaching the practice of psychology?
Just this summer, we surveyed a random sample of Minnesota psychologists and we asked them what sorts of interventions they’d used to help people with a variety of anxiety disorders, and we gathered a sense for half, and they’re using what I refer to as cognitive interventions, where it’s examining how a person thinks about things and the impact of their thoughts on their mood, and we also looked at how often they were using generally what I refer to as behavioral exposure-based interventions, so, essentially, one thing that can be helpful with anxiety is doing exactly what it is your anxiety is asking you not to do, and we found that a lot of practitioners, the majority, vast majority use the cognitive interventions, but far fewer practitioners use the behavioral exposure interventions.
Oftentimes, with anxiety, there is a sense of very strong, impending danger in some way, potential for harm, and that’s a very loud thought in the person’s mind and, it makes a lot of sense, what they would want to do is to avoid that harm or that potential danger, so, the behavioral response or what they might do is to avoid whatever it is their thoughts are telling them as dangerous.
Catherine Day: If they’re afraid to literally go out the front door of their home, which is a common anxiety, I believe, if they were to let that rule them, they might never go out again.
Stacy Freiheit: Exactly.
Catherine Day: Applying the behavioral, which you said, as I heard it, encouraged them to go and do the thing that they’re most frightened of. What did you learn in that research then if they… you were studying this combination or lack thereof?
Stacy Freiheit: What we learned is that practitioners are more likely, when they have a client who would be describing an anxiety like that, be more likely to exam the thoughts with the client to consider other ways of thinking about the situation, but would not necessarily be encouraging their client to actually practice going outside of that door, though there certainly are practitioners who do that, that there are fewer practitioners who would use that as part of the helping intervention.
Catherine Day: Were students involved in this survey you did?
Stacy Freiheit: Yeah, there was as a student involved in the survey this summer.
Catherine Day: Yeah, and what was your experience? Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to have a student working with you?
Stacy Freiheit: The student was just phenomenal. We worked together over the summer. She was a McNair scholar, and so she worked for full time, 40 hours a week for 10 weeks on the project, and we met on a regular basis to discuss the progress on the project. She adeptly managed the actual surveying of the psychologists she was involved in, the randomization, so we obtained the lists from the Minnesota Board of Psychology and randomly got a list of psychologists. She then was actively engaged in entering the data, and we analyzed the data together, and she brought all this together in a presentation that she then brought to a McNair conference in Buffalo, New York.
Catherine Day: As part of the McNair scholars that’s a prestigious funding, as I understand, that…
Stacy Freiheit: It is.
Catherine Day: … allows that person to be paid, and then it also paid for the presentation.
Stacy Freiheit: It did, yeah, and she has currently applied for Ph.D. programs and will probably be hearing back soon about those, so, yeah.
Catherine Day: She’s motivated?
Stacy Freiheit: She is. She’s very motivated. She’s fantastic.
Catherine Day: Some of the other research you’ve done, I believe you mentioned a couple of things, the field of gratitude and some work in kindness, how do people respond to that as research questions?
Stacy Freiheit: One of the things that is really wonderful about gratitude is that it costs very little and yet can be very impactful in the person’s life. Some of the research on gratitude suggests that spending some time gratitude journaling can be related to well-being several months later, and, again, this isn’t something where I’m spending several hours a day. It could be just coming up with a short list of things each day, just a couple of minutes, and even the search for something that you’re grateful for can improve mood, so you don’t even have to come up with an answer. Just asking yourself to consider it can boost a person’s mood at least for a short time, and, again, some studies would indicate even for a longer period of time.
I’ve worked with a couple of students on some different gratitude projects, and there’s an emerging literature about gratitude and its impact on depressed moods, so sadness, and we were interested in whether or not this applied to anxiety as well, so he, in his project, asked students to journal for a week on gratitude and on something neutral to see if the gratitude journaling impacted their anxiety a week later, and we found it was… It did have an impact on both anxiety and sadness.
Another student compared different types of gratitude practice, so what if I read something about gratitude versus write down something about… something that I’m grateful for to see if there was a difference. Do you have to be active in thinking about your gratitude? What he found in his project is that the active listing of things I’m grateful for had a stronger impact than reading about what somebody else was grateful for.
Catherine Day: Was he studying other Augsburg students or how… Yeah.
Stacy Freiheit: Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Day: He was in relationship to his community?
Stacy Freiheit: He was.
Catherine Day: What did he find in that process? I realize you just report the data, but…
Stacy Freiheit: Right.
Catherine Day: … I mean, what was that experience like for him? It’s an intimate conversation.
Stacy Freiheit: What he ended up doing is actually he’s now in a master’s program where he’s studying positive psychology, so I think, in some ways, he came in with an interest, and it was just confirmed. He came in with an interest about how do we impact students, maybe not necessarily in college, I think he was interested in younger students, in younger years in school, but the impact of these positive psychological interventions on the individual, and I think, just in his experience with the project, it confirmed that interest and that it can be helpful.
I have had students who recognized that I was the adviser for either of these projects in a class that they were taking with me and mentioned that, “I kept doing that. It was really helpful to be a participant in that project,” so it’s interesting, the responses, the general positive responses that people have on both sides of those projects.
Positive psychology I would say started to make a mark about the turn of the century, and it was an interest in-
Catherine Day: Of which century?
Stacy Freiheit: Oh, sorry, 2000.
Catherine Day: Okay.
Stacy Freiheit: Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Day: The brand new century, so…
Stacy Freiheit: Right.
Catherine Day: … less than 20 years ago.
Stacy Freiheit: I think it extended, it certainly started earlier than that. I know there’s been research about how do people feel. They’re doing well-being since the 1980s, but it seemed that it really started to gain some traction, and I think given the new, the turn of the new century in 2000, it seemed a good time to consider another direction in psychology.
At least in clinical psychology, there was an emphasis in the past on how do we solve problems, and it was very problem-focused, and that makes a lot of sense because, when people are hurting, absolutely, we need to address that, and then, at some point along the way, a recognition came along that, at the same time, we could also be looking at what are people’s strengths, so that’s one of the foci of the positive psychology movement or that area of research is what are people’s strengths, how is it that they constructed good life, how to be happy, I think in part, too, how to feel good about life, and it’s really interesting to see that in roughly the last, again, couple of decade-ish that it seems something that there’s a lot of intuitive appeal.
It’s gained traction in a relatively short amount of time that even some countries are highlighting the importance of well-being in their citizens and how to go about promoting well-being in their citizens and that psychology is impacting broader society in those ways at least in some nations and some countries, so there’s something that is hard for me to articulate, but I’m drawn by those questions.
Catherine Day: One of the things that I think people don’t always recognize about an Augsburg education is the degree to which excellence actually informs the curriculum here and is an aspiration. How would you talk about the approach here to excellence and standards of learning and achievement if you will?
Stacy Freiheit: I can speak in particular about the psychology department and our commitment to really educating our students in the knowledge and attitudes and skills around a particular scholarly work at research, and we have a strong commitment to working with our students on projects that they then bring to on-campus research conferences, to statewide undergraduate conferences.
Many of us also travel with students to regional and professional conferences, and we hear from our alums when the come back that they really feel well-prepared, they really understand research, which is core to psychology, and for those who on to graduate school will talk about like they’re oftentimes mentoring other students in their graduate program, say had a lot of experience, had a lot of opportunity to learn the skills of conducting a solid research project.
That’s one of the things I think I can point to specifically in our department where that’s a highly valued activity in our department, and whether or not a student wants to go on in research, it’s important, the critical thinking skills and how to bring a lot of critical thinking, thinking through numbers, understanding how to use numbers, what numbers can tell you, what they may be misleading about, so evaluating numbers, how to ask the question and go attempt to answer it and then synthesize all that information.
Catherine Day: You mentioned alumni. I’m just curious, you don’t need to name names, but are there some alumni who come to mind as particularly involved and engaged with the campus who make a contribution back by bringing their skills and knowledge, and what does that look like when they come back? Who are they interacting with?
Stacy Freiheit: We have recently over the last few years had an annual alumni panel event where we connect Auggie alums with the current psychology majors to get a sense for what sorts of things do people do when they’re done at Augsburg, and so we try to bring alums from a variety of different professional backgrounds.
When our alums come back, oftentimes, they’re meeting with students. Sometimes, we have alums who happen to be in town and want to stop by and say hi. In particular, with our new Hagfors Center, they’re super excited about our new spaces, and we have a lot of alums who come back, so it’s really nice to see this connection. Initially, to me, when I started Augsburg, it was surprising to me that students will come back. They come back. They’re excited to see you. They want to let you know what they’re up to and that they maintain that connection. It probably shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was.
Catherine Day: When you think about any dream you have for this next phase of your teaching and research, what might it be?
Stacy Freiheit: I would love for all of our psych majors to have a conference experience, so, to work on some faculty, student project or student-led projects that they then bring to a regional conference. I think it’s really there that the connection between their education and what they do afterward becomes really apparent. It becomes really clear to them why they’ve been asked to do all the things they’ve been asked to do as a psychology major and see how it can make a difference, see how this does advance the science of psychology, see how these science conversations are happening, and I think, in those moments, it clicks. It is one of those transformative experiences where that light bulb goes on and you go, “Aha, this is why I had to take those methods and stats courses. This is why I had to take these particular content courses. This is why I needed to learn that knowledge.”
I also think it’s, as part of that, one of the things we already do is we require all of our students to an internship off-campus, and we figured out how to do that. We have a lot of students who are engaged in research. I’d love to get to a point where all of them could.
Catherine Day: What would help to make that happen? What would fulfill those dreams? Is it exclusively resources? Is that the main component?
Stacy Freiheit: I think that is, yeah. I think it’s resources. It’s time, faculty, student projects in particular. Those that would be potentially competitive for regional and national professional conferences take a lot of time on the students’ part and on the faculty’s part, so part of it is time, and then it’s travel cost. It’s conference costs. That would be another, I think, opportunity for growth and support in that activity. Whether a student, again, is interested in pursuing that in the future, it’s just a really wonderful summative experience.
We’ve been bringing a handful of students over the last couple of years to Midwest Psychological Association conference in Chicago, and it’s just a really fun experience for them to be also at a conference with their fellow students. There’s a nice sense of camaraderie there. They’re wonderfully supportive of each other, so it’s a really nice capstone experience.
Catherine Day: Is there something else you wanted to tell us about Augsburg and its psychology program as you look to the celebration of the Sesquicentennial?
Stacy Freiheit: There are lots of wonderful opportunities I think for psychology students at Augsburg. Whether they’re interested in bringing their skills to the community directly and working in human service positions, again, a variety of other careers or going on into graduate school, conducting research, we really do support all these potential outcomes for students. We prepare them for both, again, with our course work, with their internship opportunities, with service learning projects where, as part of their course, they volunteer off-campus and make connections between their education, what they’re learning in class and what they’re doing off-campus, how does that apply and, again, also the research experience, so all these things prepare them really well for whatever next step it might be.
Catherine Day: Thank you, Stacy, for sharing your story with us today and for taking time for the Augsburg Podcast.
Stacy Freiheit: Thank you.
Catherine Day: We’ve been speaking with Stacy Freiheit from the psychology department. This is Catherine Reid Day, and this has been the Augsburg Podcast.
Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg Podcast. I’m President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit augsburg.edu.