Three-Minute Thesis winner Devon Kardel researches ways to manage and alleviate distress, trauma

Devon KardelA friend in the military who has returned from deployment. A family member who was in a car accident. A coworker who has lost a loved one.

Through personal and professional experience, psychology graduate student Devon Kardel has learned that traumatic events are not unusual—nearly 70 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event.

She’s also discovered that—although trauma is a common experience people share—many keep the mental and physical stress associated with the trauma to themselves.

“People don’t typically talk about mental illness because there is such a stigma. I don’t understand why. You might not know it or see it, but many people are living with a mental illness or have a loved one living with one,” she said. “I want to work to normalize the idea of it. And I want the people affected by mental illness to see that there are options for help and that things can get better.”

Kardel, with adviser Psychology Associate Professor Michelle Leonard, is working to develop a new approach to mental health: “Mindfully Managing Life Experiences Together,” which merges the ideas of trauma, relationship support and mindfulness.

She said these two main theoretical ideas—mindfulness (activities like meditation, breathing exercises) and healthy romantic relationships—have been proven to buffer distress symptoms. So she wanted to see how they worked when paired together.

“If we can get people to increase awareness of themselves through mindfulness and be more aware of their partner’s behaviors, we hope to be able to create a strong, comforting support system that will increase each partner’s overall wellbeing and intimacy, and reduce overall distress,” Kardel said.

Sharing her innovative approach with the campus community, Kardel took first place in the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition, an internationally recognized contest. The campus event, which took place in February, was sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs. Originally developed by The University of Queensland, the competition is meant to cultivate students’ academic, presentation and research communication skills.

With her on-campus win, Kardel moves forward to present at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools conference April 7 in Indianapolis.

“So many people were excited about what I could potentially find. It was very reassuring,” said Kardel, who is monitoring 60 couples in her research study and is currently in the beginning stages of data collection. “The competition also helped me work on my public speaking. I don’t think it is my strongest area, so—even though I was very nervous about it—I wanted to push myself. I’m glad I did.”

Leonard, who also supervises Kardel for her psychology practicum at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, said Kardel’s passion about her research was evident during the presentation. But it was also clear to Leonard the first time they met.

“This topic is all her. She is the one who approached me about it. Devon took concepts she is interested in—relationships and PTSD—and married that, no pun intended, with some new psychotherapeutic theories about mindfulness, awareness and nonjudgment,” Leonard said. “If she is able to show, in this limited study, that there is an effect between psychotherapy intervention, well being and relationship dynamics, this research holds big promise.”

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