Mental Health Awareness: Insights and Advice from Dr. Jason Moser

May 24, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Dr. Jason Moser is a psychophysiologist at Michigan State University whose research spans various areas of psychology, including clinical, social, and cognitive. He has appointments in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Program.  Recently, he received a courtesy appointment in the Kinesiology department, highlighting his interest in holistic, integrative research. His lab, the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, explores the interaction between mind and body and seeks to understand the full human experience. For Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Dr. Moser to discuss what steps people can take in their own life to address their mental health and why he believes in a holistic approach. 


Do you have any advice for Mental Health Awareness? 

A good place for anyone, especially those who are struggling with mental health, to start is to become aware of your own experiences and map them out in a way that you can start seeing predictable patterns. By raising awareness, you can start to see patterns in how you cope with things. For example, you may find that you doom scroll on your phone for hours after a hard conversation with a friend that has you spinning out. By jotting down experiences like that, you can start to see patterns in how you respond to difficult emotions. Once you are aware of those patterns, you can start to think about reversing the habits that take away from using the emotions you’re having for good. Those emotions are often trying to tell you important things.  

A lot of times those patterns reveal themselves as ways to keep you away from other people, to keep you secluded and not engaged with your life. A lot of the therapy I do is exposure-based therapy, which essentially is facing your fears. But that notion can apply to a lot of different emotions: face your sadness, anger, dread, shame, or whatever it is that you want to avoid. Avoiding hard things, especially negative emotions, is a natural human tendency.  But if you get in the habit of avoiding negative emotions over and over again, and you find it's associated with certain behaviors that take you away from others, like sitting in front of a television for hours, doom scrolling, numbing with alcohol and drugs, or sleeping long hours, then those are the sorts of situations you want to think about approaching differently. Try approaching them in ways to challenge yourself but don’t overwhelm you – to get you back out there in your life and with others.  

These things are tough to do. But not doing it can prevent you from learning new things and growing in ways that you ultimately want to. People have goals and values, but they can lose track of the bigger picture if they are getting into habits where negative feelings push them into seclusion and away from others. As much as we want to get rid of those negative feelings and try to avoid them, they really do have information for us. If we listen to the emotions that we feel and then try to go back to those situations that elicited those emotions, we can learn and grow in ways that are in line with our ultimate values and life goals. 

Why is it important to you to view things from multiple fields and approaches? 

I think about things in an integrative way. I've always been interested in the idea of translational research, which is to say that you do some things in the lab and see if you can then take that knowledge and translate it into something that might be useful for people who are out there struggling in their daily lives. I could just dig into one topic and mode of study, but I just am not satisfied in that mental space. My brain works in a much more holistic, integrative way. I like to know as many of the different angles on things as possible.  

My educational background is in liberal arts. I started off as an acting major at a community college in Harrisburg, PA, before transferring to main campus Penn State. I stumbled into psychology there but continued to take classes like philosophy, poetry, movement, and religion. I took a class that literally was called Buddhism in America. And then I took some more specific psychology classes like Personality and Abnormal Psychology. But I've always been interested in a holistic perspective on human experience.  

A holistic approach makes me feel like I have a better handle on the full picture of what people might be grappling with. What I'm interested in is helping folks manage tough and hard situations, making it easier for them, and guiding them toward their goals. In a nutshell, that's what I'm looking to do. I'd rather give people a toolkit rather than kind of a one size fits all approach. 

Your lab is called the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab—what does that mean? 

I consider myself a psychophysiologist, which is a term that people don't always understand. Ultimately, I'm interested in understanding human nature from a traditional psychological lens and drawing from those methods which usually involve talking to people, asking them to fill out surveys, sometimes doing behavioral performance tasks; and, also from physiological ways of understanding human nature through peripheral physiology, like our skin conductance and heart rate, but also central physiology, which is the brain. I'm interested in merging psychological ways of thinking with physiological ways of understanding and thinking about things into one package. Psychophysiology has always meant that to me.  

I've always been fascinated with the problem of mind and body that people have been grappling with for millennia in philosophy, religious studies, and psychology.  I got really interested in trying to move us along that journey of understanding the full human from having as many methods as we can converge on things like fear and anxiety. It seems to me that if you want to understand them, you should have multiple methods and perspectives at your disposal. That's where psychology and physiology both, I think, fill out the picture more than being focused on one or the other independently. 

Throughout your career, have you had any aha moments?  

Early on when I got to Michigan State, we had some findings that changed my trajectory in a lot of ways. I was doing a study as a benchmark for my lab to show that anxiety relates to this little brain blip that can be seen on an EEG called the error-related negativity. This blip happens in your brain after you make a mistake on a simple task. After running this experiment, I looked at the data and saw no relationship between anxiety and this brain blip. At first, I thought something was wrong with my equipment, but everything checked out. On a hunch, I started looking at the people in the study. We happened to have an even number of people who identified as male and people who identified as female. I split it up across the sexes and when I did that, suddenly, the relationship that I was expecting to see was there in the females. We did a meta-analysis after that in existing data and found the same thing again. For all types of anxiety, except for obsessive-compulsive disorder, this relationship between anxiety and the brain blip to errors was really something going on for females. This led me to get a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to try to unpack that across the menstrual cycle and to see how different hormones had an impact on that.  

The way that I was raised in science is that you work to find key principles that are relevant to a large slice of humanity like people who are anxious. This brain blip caused me to think about individuals' experiences rather than a large generalization. This can make some scientists nervous, but I think there is a middle ground and that's where we've tried to get to: there are some things that are common for a group of people, but those exact situations might be very different for each person, including how they approach that situation to overcome it.  

For some people, it may be harder to stay focused and to juggle multiple things in the face of anxiety based on their biological sex, where they are in the menstrual cycle, or even to the extent that they tend to be somebody who has higher circulating estrogen or progesterone. I started to see that this is more about understanding the contexts in which measures tell us something new about how anxiety interferes with a person's life. 

This led me to think about things in a more holistic way rather than thinking about finding specific brain or biological markers for anxiety in general. I've really abandoned that idea completely, and really thought about using these different methods in the lab to understand how anxiety makes it hard for certain people at certain times for certain types of problems they're trying to solve. 

 Can you give an example of how that looks? 

Two college students who have a generalized anxiety problem may approach finals week very differently. One might be a perfectionist, who exhausts themselves trying to get an A, by over-preparing. They come out of the week exhausted and it’s that internal cost that can be hidden because it doesn’t show up on the exam – they get an A. The other person might be just as anxious, but they don't have the motivation or the study skills to try to solve that problem. And instead, they find themselves at the exam completely underprepared and the cost of their anxiety shows up on the exam – in the form of a low grade. So, there are some commonalities between these two people who experience generalized anxiety, but they each have different ways their anxiety manifests and shows costs to their mental health and school performance . 

It is important to know the meaningful differences between people. It is critical that we don’t think of everyone as the same, but instead appreciate the different ways people approach things and how their anxiety gets in the way, based on their biological sex, gender, race, ethnicity, especially for those with minoritized identities experiencing discrimination and oppression.  

What do you hope the impact of your research will be? 

Ultimately, I think about scale. I would love to be able to help the biggest audience possible. That's why we really focused on studying things that relate to a lot of people’s experiences—like managing emotions and performance in all aspects—and trying to give as many different strategies as possible that are relatively easy to use. We want to help change some of the narrative around what those tools could even be and how they could be used.