Just do it!

Just do it!

University of Windsor researcher believes anxiety can motivate people to look after their health
July 9, 2008
Fuschia Sirois

Fuschia Sirois

Excerpted with permission from the University of Windsor.

A series of print ads aimed at reducing on-the-job accidents caused a considerable amount of controversy in Windsor, Ontario recently when the body that governs the city’s public transit system decided they were too graphic for commuters. Although it was argued that people waiting for a bus didn’t need the anxiety of seeing someone lying in a pool of blood, the effectiveness of those ads—placed by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and depicting a series of sometimes gruesome workplace accidents—are just the kinds of things that might intrigue someone like University of Windsor Psychology Associate Professor Dr. Fuschia Sirois.

Sirois, along with a team of students, operates a health and well-being lab in the university’s Chrysler Hall. The lab is used primarily for understanding why people delay looking after their health, but the researcher is also interested in knowing how much anxiety is required to motivate people to look after themselves. Her ultimate research goal is to remind people to seek the healthcare they need in a timely fashion.

Procrastination is one of Sirois’s major fields of interest and she has published numerous articles on the subject. “We know that people who put things off engage in thought processes to minimize that stress,” she said. “What is it that they tell themselves to make it okay?”

Health-seeking behaviour is another one of Sirois’s interests and she plans to conduct a study that will involve drafting drama students to develop mock public service announcements about certain diseases and conditions which would vary in their level of alarm. Those PSAs would be shown to subjects in her lab, with an eye to determining how measured anxiety can be used effectively to motivate people into health-promoting behaviour, without causing complete inaction due to fear. “To what level do you have to raise people’s anxiety to get them to seek help for a symptom, but without alarming them?” Sirois asked.

People may intuitively know that they need to get to a doctor if they’re experiencing light-headedness or shortness of breath, but may put off going if they know the consequences might be discovering they have life-threatening heart disease.

One of the team’s first studies involved surveying people who have committed to making healthy lifestyle changes and monitoring their progress to determine, among other things, what sorts of mental strategies individuals incorporate when they put off acting on commitments. Researchers can measure the physiological reactions people experience when subjected to a variety of anxiety-inducing stressors using skin response finger clips, pulse oximetry to measure oxygen saturation in arterial blood, and equipment to measure respiratory rates. “Rather than just asking someone about how anxious or stressed they are, we can take the actual physiological measures,” Sirois said.

She has reviewed existing literature on the subject of anxiety as a motivator and has found that at low levels of anxiety, individuals tend not to exhibit much care-seeking behaviour, but this behaviour increases considerably at the mid-range levels of anxiety. “At what point is anxiety a threat?” she asks. “We do know that too much fear will have the opposite effect. There are cases in the literature where people have had full-blown heart attacks and haven’t even gone to see a doctor. People can go undiagnosed for years and go through a lot of suffering.”

The infrastructure for this project was partially funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.