Concerned about in-person classes? Here’s how you can build resilience
Relieving stress and setting boundaries can help us balance our physical and mental health.

With a full return to in-person classes on February 7, 2022, students at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) are expected to feel anxious. While some are concerned about their safety on campus due to Covid-19, others are nervous about the upcoming closed-book midterm season. As such, building resilience is key to preventing mental and physical distress. 

Dr. Judith P. Andersen is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at UTM. As a health psychologist, her research focuses on the biological, psychological, and social factors that invoke physical and mental stress and impact our health and performance. Last week, in collaboration with the Health and Counseling Centre, she hosted a Wellness 101 Workshop on building resilience. Dr. Andersen explores important coping mechanisms students can take to help navigate stressful situations. 

At the beginning of the winter semester, she held an online survey for her PSY340H5: Abnormal Psychology class. In it, she found that most of her students were experiencing burnout. “This seems to indicate that, right away, at the beginning of the semester, we’re already potentially dipping into our long-term reserves [as opposed to relying on short-term reserves],” she says. 

According to Dr. Andersen, humans have short-term and long-term physical reserves. These reserves determine our physical and emotional status. Having low energy and experiencing stress are examples of a short-term reserve—it reflects an imbalance in our nervous system. When left untreated, it can lead to symptoms of burnout, hence dipping into the long-term reserve. 

Stress has been linked to mental health disorders including depression and suicide, as well as increased risks of heart attack and early mortality. Dr. Andersen explains that our response to stress starts in the brain. Our brainstem controls important bodily functions such as our heart and breathing rate. The brain then uses this information and stimulates a stress response. For example, when we feel uneasy or scared, our brain releases stress-inducing hormones like cortisol to our bloodstream as a “fight-or-flight” response. 

Currently, Dr. Andersen is working with first responders to develop evidence-based resilience training programs. In her research, she has found that stress contributes to mistakes and lethal force errors. For instance, during high-stress situations that police officers face, vision difficulties may arise and their thinking processes are impaired—thereby resulting in fatal mistakes such as lethal force. Using resilience training, Dr. Andersen found that police officers were less likely to make such errors. Moreover, she found that police officers under constant exposure to stress and trauma were more likely to develop diabetes and cancer. Thus, her research also focuses on “improving the performance and resilience through training.”

For students, building resilience can help reinforce our mental and physical health. To do so, we need to work on replenishing our short-term and long-term reserves. According to Dr. Andersen, a good night’s sleep, meditation, or any relaxing activity can replenish short-term reserves. However, she points out that sometimes, these solutions don’t work. One might wake up fatigued for a few days instead of refreshed. 

“Students who aren’t getting help now, or at the end of the semester, may face difficulties meeting deadlines. That’s why it’s crucial to pay attention to our [physical] health and mental health—even when we’re feeling okay,” she adds. 

Dr. Andersen introduces the “reset, refocus, respond” method to deal with stress. Often, in stressful situations, just giving ourselves pep talks in our heads to calm down is not enough. She notes that the body’s natural response to stress is to refocus all our energy onto that perceived threat. As a result, the positive affirmations get overshadowed. Instead, she advises us to shift our attention to what she calls a “manual override,” such as taking control of our breathing.

When completing the resilience training with first responders, Dr. Andersen found that their heart rates rose prior to arriving at the scene due to the uncertainty of how events would unfold. After performing a one-breath breathing technique, the heart rate of first responders lowered to the optimal level. Dr. Andersen developed the International Performance Resilience & Efficiency Program (iPREP) to “train first-respondents in techniques that would improve their mental and physical readiness in high-stress situations.” iPREP was implemented by Peel Police in 2016 in hopes of improving well-being and reducing mistakes such as lethal errors. 

“It’s about finding balance,” concludes Dr. Andersen. “You physically need to rebuild your reserves and protect your long-term reserves because they do get drained.” 

To avoid drain, she suggests setting boundaries. This could look like not responding to emails after a certain time, blocking a day off every week, or taking the weekends off. By setting boundaries, we’re able to keep time to ourselves and replenish our reserves. In doing so, we avoid dipping into long-term reserves, thereby avoiding burnout and staying resilient. 

Features Editor (Volume 49) | features@themedium.ca —Maneka is a third year student completing a specialization in Philosophy with a minor in political science. Previously, she served as one of The Medium’s Staff Writer and Associate Features Editor. As this year’s Features Editor, Maneka hopes to raise awareness, shed light over current issues, and highlight student voices and organizations. When Maneka is not studying, writing, or working, you’ll probably find her binging on, or rather re-watching her favorite shows, listening to music, thinking about her dog, or likely taking a nap.

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