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Overcoming Trauma! What Are Psychological Disaster-Preparedness Drills and Psychological Warmup Exercises?

Yasushi Kyutoku/Associate Professor of Chuo University Research and Development Initiative in the Faculty of Science and Engineering
Area of Research: Health Psychology

Interviewer: Tomokazu Fukui
(URA, Chuo University Research Promotion Office)

As long as human beings are alive, they will be forced to deal with various poor physical and mental conditions. In addition to injuries and illnesses, we also suffer from mental disorders caused by various types of stress. Of course, recovering from such disorders is important; however, if possible, we would prefer to prevent such disorders from occurring in the first place.

The importance of prevention is heavily emphasized as common sense. Examples include vaccines, hand-washing, and gargling for preventing infectious diseases, and engaging in proper exercise and dietary balance for preventing lifestyle-related diseases. Even so, when it comes to mental disorders, almost no measures have been implemented for the prevention, despite the existence of measures to care the disorders after occurrence including drugs and psychotherapy.

In response, Associate Professor Yasushi Kyutoku is researching ways to prepare in advance so that we will not be upset when we are exposed to strong psychological stress in our daily lives in the future. What are the emotional disaster-preparedness drills and emotional warmup exercises that he recommends? How do these drills and exercises relate to our daily lives?

His research started from skateboarding?!

-Associate Professor Kyutoku, you currently conduct research on mental health at Chuo University. I assume that you have always been scholarly since you were a child?

As typical for the Showa Period, I was raised in a problematic household and sought to escape from that daily life through my love of extreme hobbies. When I was in my teens, I became involved in things like punk culture (my birthday is on May Day!) and skateboarding. In particular, when it comes to skateboarding, it may take several years to succeed in performing complicated tricks. I would form hypotheses and repeat a process of trial-and-error in order to learn new tricks. I feel that is the foundation of my research activities. It's similar in that effort does not always yield success.

-Sounds like you had a pretty intense childhood! It's surprising that your pursuit of new skateboard tricks was the source of your research spirit.

Actually, I didn't have true ambition to pursue higher studies in graduate school, and I only entered graduate school because I thought I would have more time for skateboarding. Ultimately, I was so busy with research and lectures that I had less time to ride my board. Also, I've always liked baseball. I'm still a big fan of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.

-What a coincidence! I was also a Kintetsu fan when I was a kid! (Although we enjoyed talking about the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, the conversation is omitted from this interview article.)

-Sounds like your active lifestyle continued through childhood until you were studying at university. So, was such a busy schedule an opportunity to start researching mental health?

After graduating from high school, I attended junior college and university in the United States. Until my mid-30s, I worked mainly in physical labor, including as a mountain carrier-guide at tourist attractions and as a teppanyaki chef. Since I had a great deal of experience working as a entry-level employee or as a foreigner, I had also experienced unfair and unreasonable treatment. Everywhere I went, there were people who used their job titles and positions to behave in a domineering manner. Nevertheless, I realized that the behavior of such people was not solely attributable to their inherent personality or character, but was also influenced by environmental factors such as their position and situation. At that time, I also lacked emotional tolerance and self-confidence, and I felt that I was becoming negative by focusing only on the negative aspects of the people around me. Therefore, the fact that I was always feeling people may be able to spend more peaceful time together depending on their way of thinking and ingenuity led to my current research.

-I see. Your difficult experiences motivated you to do research on how people can spend peaceful time together.

Experimental psychology is science!

-Your specialty is experimental psychology. Many people are unfamiliar with this term. Is the field related to the chart-based psychological tests which are often seen on TV and in magazines?

No, it's completely different (laughs wryly). Those tests you are referring to are more like fortune-telling. Although it may be surprising to people who have never dealt with experimental psychology, our experimental methods are quite close to the natural sciences.

-My image of psychology is as a liberal arts subject. However, you use a scientific method.

I use experimental design to design research based on previous research. I also take quantitative measurements and use statistical analysis to verify results. There is also a discipline called psychometrics which is related to the scientific measurement of psychology and has a history of more than 100 years overseas. Personally, I studied experimental psychology, and am now using methods such as online questionnaires to verify how well psychological phenomena can be captured after considering bias based on psychometrics. Although this is still a young field in the sciences, it is also a field which is expected to grow in the future. I feel that it is a worthwhile pursuit.

-It seems that you value objectivity. Conversely, aren't emotion subjective by nature? How do you come to terms with that?

Of course, the subjectivity of the research subject is also an important factor. While studying for my Ph.D., I was blessed with the opportunity to be involved in QOL (Quality Of Life; mainly refers to quality of life during conditions such as illness compared to normal life) research for patients with terminal lung cancer. This research showed both qualitatively and quantitatively that QOL, which is a subjective index, reflects the actual feelings of patients better than objective indexes such as physiological indexes and diagnoses. Through this experience, I reaffirmed the importance of researching subjectivity.

-I understand now. The question of whether objectivity or subjectivity is better for measuring reality depends on the time and the case. By the way, I have heard that you are currently conducting research related to trauma, and that you started that research after returning to Japan.

That's right. After completing my Ph.D. and returning to Japan, I applied the research experience and methods which I just discussed to develop and publish a quantitative model for the psychological adaptation process related to the Great East Japan Earthquake. It goes without saying that it is important to research this kind of major trauma, but at the same time, many people experience multiple--even if minor--traumatic events in their daily lives.

-Without a doubt, even if a person is not involved in a disaster, there are many emotionally damaging events such as physical/verbal abuse by family members, power harassment by bosses, or being treated with disapproval or annoyance by strangers. Many people receive treatment at medical clinics because of depression.

That's very true. Although there is medical treatment given once an emotional disorder has occurred, there are few psychological studies on preventative measures. When considering this discrepancy, I remembered when I used to work in physical labor and how people who neglected preparatory exercises were often injured. In addition to the physical effects of failing to perform preparatory exercises, perhaps the mental attitude of such people contributed to their injury. Similarly, I formulated the idea that it would be beneficial if people were to put effort into emotional warmup exercises and emotional disaster-preparedness drills.

-I see. Does that mean that stressful events should be viewed positively as an impetus for growth?

No, that's not what I'm saying. Although there is positive psychology that aims to enrich life by developing one's strengths (this differs from positive thinking in which an individual endeavors to think positively about anything), I am conducting research based on my idea that spending daily life in moderate peace will lead to a better life. Ultimately, it would be wonderful if people around me could be comfortable in their daily lives. My decision not to overly rely on positive psychology is heavily influenced by Professor Mitsuru Yamashina (Faculty of Letters), my co-researcher who sincerely interacts with his research subjects.

-Certainly, if one person is frustrated, depressed, or dominated by negative emotions, there will be an adverse effect on surrounding individuals. What exactly do you mean by emotional disaster-preparedness drills and emotional warmup exercises?

For example, there are intervention measures proven as effective such as Three Good Things exercise. For one week, before going to bed every night, write down three good things about that day and your involvement in those good things. This alone was proven effective in reducing depression and improving well-being for more than 6 months. Interestingly, overusing this method seems to be counterproductive. In my opinion, the mechanisms of this exercise differ for the first day and for the second and subsequent days. I believe that the very act of consciously recalling good events has a positive effect.

-Does this exercise constitute confirmation of self-efficacy? Overdoing such an exercise would become too much trouble, wouldn't it?

I think so. There are also reports that playing Tetris (a video game that requires visual and spatial processing) while recalling visual and negative emotional memories will reduce unintentional recall of those memories.

-Is it something like connections with unpleasant memories of an image are overwritten by the fun of playing Tetris?

Yes, it is considered important to increase access to positive emotions and reduce access to negative emotions regarding a certain image. However, I personally believe in the importance of negative emotions in terms of facing oneself and reality. Consequently, I think that it is important to pursue balance rather than a simple positive-negative dualism. Having an attitude of unrealistic positiveness is a problem in itself, and such an attitude will not have a beneficial effect on the people around you. I can't discuss the details now because I'm just about to start my research on this theme. Still, I can state my belief that performing these intervention in advance will fulfill the role of emotional warmup exercises.

Everyone responds to stress differently

Previous studies on psychological adaptation to disasters have shown the importance of post-traumatic growth (PTG) as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on QOL. Studies have also clarified the existence of multiple time-series patterns (between individuals) for PTSD and PTG.

-Not only does the stress of a disaster inflict deep emotional damage and disorder, but it also strengthens your emotions. The question of whether the same stress will weaken or strengthen a person can only be answered on a case-by-case basis.

As you just described, there are many patterns of responding to stress. Therefore, I think there is no such thing as an ideal pattern for various psychological indicators, and the appropriate balance differs from person to person. For this reason, if permitted by financial, human, and time resources, I believe in the importance of careful intervention that is tailored to each person and case; for example, group-based intervention methods.

-There is no one-size-fits-all measure that can be applied to all people.

That's right. I am not a clinical specialist, so I cannot identify or treat negative psychological states as done in conventional clinical psychology. Furthermore, I believe that enhancing well-being with the aim of enriching life like in positive psychology is not realistic for many people. Therefore, from the standpoint of preventive psychology, I aspire to gain knowledge that allows me and people around me to spend our days in a fairly good (so-so) psychological state. If I were to give a name to this concept, it would be "so-so psychology" or "psychology of balance."

-Instead of making everyone happy, it's about preventing people from being unhappy, so that everyone can spend their daily lives reasonably peacefully.

For a peaceful society that is tolerant of others

-In what way would you like your research results to be useful?

I hope that every individual and the people around them will heighten their well-being to a fairly high level, will recognize that diversity exists in psychological characteristics and will be tolerant of themselves and others.

Rather than imposing social norms and values such as compliance onto others, it would be nice to live in a world where each person can lead a fairly good and subjective life by accepting the differences of other people.

-What do you want to investigate next?

I understand that there is no ideal pattern for various psychological indicators, and that the good balance differs from person to person. However, in the future, I hope to clarify this balance pattern and eventually engage in research which makes it possible to maintain a fairly good psychological state as a group.

-Do you have any ideas for collaboration with other fields?

Thankfully, I am now building relationships with people with whom I wish to collaborate. Currently, I am conducting joint research with Professor Angela Liegey-Dougall of The University of Texas at Arlington, who is renowned in the field of health psychology, Associate Professor Chih-Lun (Alan) Yen of Ball State University, who specializes in marketing, Professor Mitsuru Yamashina of the Chuo University Department of Psychology, my supervisor Professor Ippeita Dan, and graduate students at my laboratory and other laboratories. In the near future, I am planning to collaborate with Assistant Professor Ryo Sagisaka of the Department of Integrated Science and Engineering for Sustainable Society at Chuo University. I expect that an interview featuring Professor Sagisaka will be posted soon. While I am working on this interview, I began a joint research on feelings of emotional security with Prof. Shoji, Prof. Yamashina, Prof. Tanishita, Prof. Namba, and Research Associate Dr. Fukuda of Chuo University. I can't contain my excitement over these developments. Also, in my main research theme of preventive psychology, it is important to engage in verification and outreach in the real world through industry-academia collaborative research with corporations. I look forward to participation from interested corporations.

-In closing, would you please give a message to the readers?

Thank you for reading this interview. My own complex about my stubborn and negative personality, which makes life difficult for me, is the motivation for this research theme. Of course, I am not the only person who feels stressed in daily life. I would like to devote myself to my research so that we all can maintain moderately high state of wellbeing, while overcoming our mutual dislikes.


Even though I have reached the ripe old age of 48, I still cannot resist extreme sports. (The photograph was taken in a city in Saitama Prefecture when nobody was around. The city has beautiful scenery, so I am able to forget about daily life and concentrate solely on my riding techniques. This contributes to my well-being.)

Yasushi Kyutoku/Associate Professor of Chuo University Research and Development Initiative in the Faculty of Science and Engineering
Area of Research: Health Psychology

Yasushi Kyutoku was born in Mie Prefecture in 1973.
In 2001, he earned his B.A. in psychology from The University of Texas at San Antonio.
In 2007, he earned his M.S. in psychology from The University of Texas at Arlington.
In 2008, he earned his Ph.D. (experimental psychology) from The University of Texas at Arlington.
In 2009, he served as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Food Research Institute.
In 2012, he served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Development of Advanced Medical Technology of the School of Medicine, Jichi Medical University.
He has held his current position since 2013.

Research themes
Modeling of the quantitative psychological adaptation process related to the Great East Japan Earthquake, applied research for psychometrics, etc.

Coauthored works
Bernstein, I.H & Kyutoku, Y. (2008). Test Bank for Psychological Testing 7th by Kaplan, R. & Saccuzzo, D. P. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth pub.

Affiliated organization
American Psychological Association