“Checking in” with ourselves before it’s too late
UTM psychology professor Norman Farb on surviving midterm season and prioritizing self-care.

With the lack of sunlight and 60-degree grades of midterms season arriving, many students at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) might be feeling anxious, stressed, or burnt out. Sometimes it might feel as if your professors just don’t get it. But Professor Norman Farb does. 

Professor Farb is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at UTM. His research focuses on how mindfulness, meditation, therapy, nudge interventions, and psychedelics can shape our emotional experiences and promote well-being.

One of Professor Farb’s most important findings is that stress causes people to shut down the parts of their brain that process sensations. “If you know that things aren’t going well and you stop letting in new information, you’ll never know anything beyond the fact that things aren’t going well,” he explains. “That eventually leads to burnout.”

Professor Farb defines burnout as, “You’re surviving, but you’re not actively growing or learning. It’s a type of manifestation of physiological exhaustion.” He notes that burnout is a response that dates back to 15,000 years ago when hominids—a primate group including modern and extinct great apes, such as humans—mobilized resources to escape predators. Similarly, burnout is a survival tactic our body uses when drained.

Although research has shown that excessive social media use is a proponent of burnout and can lead to poor mental health, Professor Farb argues that “our own inability to take responsibility for our usage” is also to blame. “Social media is a tool that we don’t have [the] cultural maturity […] to use. We’re like five-year-olds with hammers,” he states. 

Professor Farb’s research also focuses on nudge interventions, which is an approach used by people, companies, and educators, to modify the behaviours of their audiences while safeguarding their freedom of choice. This is accomplished by making small changes to both their internal and external environments instead of large ones. “If you want people to change, you can’t ask them to sacrifice their whole life and drop everything,” he explains. “Instead, you have to be like, ‘What’s a little thing we can get you to do?’” Researchers and teachers are actively trying to determine how these small bumps can keep us engaged and ultimately, change a small portion of how we act or think.

Nudge interventions can play a role in the life of a UTM student as well. “If you nudge students by checking in on how they’re doing a few times a week, they will feel less stressed when they’re going through midterms and finals. It allows them to take a step back and look at what’s going on in their lives,” explains Professor Farb. Those small interventions can lead to students taking greater action later on, such as practicing mindfulness or meditating. 

“Your habits take care of you in one way or another,” he says. “So, you have to start checking in with yourself early on in the term and take notice of when things aren’t working and when you’re feeling overwhelmed.” Self-care is essential. Professor Farb notes that this might look like taking on fewer responsibilities, prioritizing a healthy lifestyle, and asking for help when you need it. 

That feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to procrastination, Professor Farb points out. Just like how we procrastinate on finishing our assignments or studying for exams, we can, and often will, procrastinate on taking care of our own well-being during midterm season. “The thinking is that we can’t handle something, so it’s better and safer to just not do it,” he explains. 

But we know that this is not a good long-term strategy for success. Professor Farb explains that our capacity to produce good results relies on maintaining our emotional well-being. “Part of continuing to be productive and doing well means checking in on yourself to make sure that things haven’t spiralled out of control. Your opinion might not change from day-to-day, or from week-to-week, depending on what’s going on. But just because something was okay last term doesn’t mean that it is now,” he expands.

Changing our habits, then, is crucial to our success as university students. For example, after realizing that the strategies that worked in high school might not bode well for us in university, adapting to new methods is essential. 

“Many of us, myself included, don’t realize that we have limits,” Professor Farb shares. “You fail an exam, and your whole world crumbles, right? But [it doesn’t]. You just had too much stuff piled up to the point where you just couldn’t handle all of it.”

There will be times when we will feel that we need to take a step back and ask for help, and there will also be times when we will feel fine and seek to be challenged. That’s okay. “You just need to be real with yourself on where you are,” says Professor Farb. “Take two minutes to ask yourself, ‘How did today go? Is there anything I could do to take care of myself better tomorrow?’ Just ask that question and be okay with not knowing the answer,” he concludes.


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