Understanding the science of stress and loneliness
How did you develop your interest in psychology?
When I was in school in Galway I was interested in science so I went to study engineering but soon realized I was more interested in people science. I think if psychology had been a subject in school I would have gone straight to college, but after I started engineering I reapplied psychology and that’s how I started to study it.
In what area of psychology are you researching?
Basically, I’m looking at the psychology of health and stress, and right now we’re exploring loneliness in young adults. Loneliness is a hallmark of many mental health problems, and the emergence of adulthood is a time of great change. In this transition from adolescence to adulthood, around the age of 16 to 25, you are likely finishing school, perhaps leaving the family home, and building new networks of friends.
We know that the brain continues to develop significantly until the mid-twenties, and now we see that many cultural markers of adulthood, such as leaving home, getting married, starting a family, tend to happen later. It is therefore an interesting period in life for research from a biological and cultural point of view.
Tell us about some of the work you do.
I worked with Spunout.ie on a project funded by the Irish Research Council, where young adults talk about their views on what could lead to and maintain loneliness. This research brings together theories about loneliness and the experience of people in this age group.
Already from the data we have collected, we see that the quantity and quality of social connections are important for young adults, and that the pandemic has impacted them in terms of reduced opportunities.
Then, in the new year, my lab hopes to launch another research, this time on the psychology of this transition as young people with diabetes move from pediatric health services to adult health services, in order to better support this transition.
What would you like people to know about your field of work?
That we are looking for evidence and that we are trying to be objective. Because psychology is about people, we can all contribute something, but as researchers in psychology we take a scientific approach to studying human behavior, thoughts, and feelings. As researchers, we take a step back from our own experiences and focus on the evidence.
And what keeps you going?
Having an education or training in psychology is valuable, it helps you understand how others function – including yourself. I also really like the mix of research and teaching. Research in this area is evolving and I love that through teaching I can bring this new research to people who could then implement it outside of university, perhaps in clinical practice. Because research is only good if it is used or implemented.
Finally, how to gain space for yourself?
We have young children, ages two and three, so life is very busy. I find that since I have children, I need to be more realistic about the use of my time. I have to admit that maybe I cannot do absolutely everything I want to do and that it is more than normal to accept offers of help. I am fortunate to work with a great team of colleagues and PhD students, and that makes a huge difference.