Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (2018-2019)


Social isolation and lack of intimate relationships have been tied to severe adverse consequences, including poor health outcomes and premature mortality. The epidemic of social isolation, which is getting worse with each new generation, may be a strong driving factor behind the increasing rates of mental health problems in the United States. Given the severity of this public health crisis, there is a pressing need for new interventions that target and treat problems with social functioning across a range of psychiatric disorders.

One potential target for intervention is emotion perception deficits, which are problems with perceiving and understanding other people’s emotions. These deficits are associated with serious psychiatric disorders (e.g., anxiety, mood and personality disorders) and lead to debilitating societal problems, such as isolation and violence.

Previous research suggests that intense emotional distress impairs emotion perception. Therefore, interventions that help patients manage their emotional experiences in social contexts may improve their ability to perceive other people’s emotions.

However, for new interventions to make an impact on the individual and society, the treatment benefits must extend into patients’ daily lives. Duke researchers have developed a new approach to help patients practice new emotion regulation skills using mobile phone reminders.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will study whether teaching people to calm down using mindfulness can improve their social skills. Specifically, the project team will test the effects of a new, mindfulness-based intervention on the ability to perceive other people’s emotions. This intervention includes 1) a laboratory training session in which people learn how to regulate their emotions with mindful breathing and then 2) one week of reminders of this mindfulness skill, delivered to participants through their mobile phones. This study will be conducted with a clinical sample of adults with emotional difficulties.

The outcome of this study will be a brief, accessible mindfulness-based emotion regulation intervention that improves social communication processes in adults who have severe emotional difficulties. In addition to the study, the team will develop a website that provides practical information on emotion regulation and social skills for the community.

Anticipated Outcomes

Publications and conference presentations; website and pilot web-based emotion regulation intervention; data for grant applications


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Prepare and launch study; begin weekly meetings and study training; plan website development; recruit study participants
  • Spring 2019: Conduct study until 66 participants have been completed; design and launch website; conduct literature reviews, experiential exercises and group discussion; write papers and give presentations; prepare data for statistical analyses and use SPSS to analyze data; write manuscripts to submit to peer-reviewed journals

Team Outcomes to Date

Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction  (poster by Susie Choi, Julia Long, Victoria Trimm, Bridget Wallace, Kibby McMahon, Caitlin Fang, Dr. Zachary Rosenthal, Timothy Strauman, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)


Victoria Trimm

See related team, Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (2019-2020).

Hand holding phone with image of person meditating

Team Leaders

  • Katherine (Kibby) McMahon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
  • M. Zachary Rosenthal, School of Medicine-Psychiatry: Behavioral Medicine
  • Timothy Strauman, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Susie Choi, Computer Science (AB)
  • Julia Long, Computer Science (BS), Mathematics (AB2)
  • Victoria Trimm, Psychology (AB)
  • Bridget Wallace, Psychology (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Gary Bennett, Duke Global Digital Health Science Center
  • Caitlin Fang, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Cognitive Behavioral Research and Therapy Program, Duke Psychiatry