COVID-19 in B.C.: UBC stress study seeks to help people prepare for second pandemic wave and beyond

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      Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C. has been a stressful period for everyone. Yet even though the province is heading into the third phase of its reopening plan, these unusual conditions may be affecting individuals in different ways over the long term.

      UBC psychology assistant professor Joelle LeMoult, who heads up the post-secondary institution's depression, anxiety, and stress lab, has been leading a study since April to examine how people are coping and what they can do to improve their emotional well-being.

      During a phone interview, LeMoult, a clinical psychologist who also studies resilience and which positive elements can arise from difficulties, said that her study will follow participants during a period of a year to see how stress levels change in each stage.

      “Our goal is to understand what happens if there’s a second wave,” she said. “Are people inoculated a little bit? Like, ‘Okay, we’ve been through this; we can do this again.’ Or is it like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve used all of our energy and resources, all of our strength, to get through this the first time—this is just too much.’ ”

      She said the main goals of the study are “what’s making people resilient, who needs help, and how can we use that to inform the second wave but also how can we help people respond to stress more generally?”

      Although the pandemic has affected everyone in “profound ways”, she said, not everyone has been impacted in the same ways or equally.

      LeMoult pointed out that some groups are more heavily affected by these changes than others, due to access to resources, socioeconomic status, race, and other factors, and not everyone is experiencing the same pandemic stressors at the same time.

      For instance, when the number of COVID-19 cases was peaking in B.C., she said, those who had to stay home from work may have enjoyed using the time constructively or reconnecting with their families.

      Each phase has its “own challenges and also its own opportunities”, she said.

      For example, some people may have found that having everything closed in the first phase was easier to deal with than during the current phase, in which everyone has to make their own decisions in uncertain or ambiguous circumstances.

      Nonetheless, she said she believes the pandemic can offer the opportunity for people to develop and strengthen lifelong habits.

      “If we can use this time to develop positive coping strategies and build our own resilience, it actually will help us cope with other stressors that come up in the future,” she said.

      The good news, she said, is that everyone, regardless of personality, finances, or risk level, can learn strategies how to better cope with stress.

      “I encourage people to start thinking about their mental health in the same way they do their physical health,” she said, likening mental wellness to going to the gym.

      LeMoult said she feels that one benefit of the pandemic is the “increased conversation about mental health and self-care”. For those seeking help, she recommends seeking out free online resources such as Anxiety Canada, Bounce Back, and Wellness Together Canada.

      Anyone interested in participating in her study can do so by visiting blogs.ubc.ca/covidstudy/.

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