Researching Stress During A Pandemic

Researchers change their project's course during COVID-19

To promote physical distancing and reduce the spread of COVID-19, laboratory access for unessential research projects at many universities across the country has been temporarily suspended. This change has caused researchers to adapt their approach to suit the current climate—including the Université de Montréal’s Dr. Sonia Lupien. Funded through a partnership between HBHL and UdeM, Dr. Lupien's project originally focused on studying stress in graduating university students, and has recently been adapted to study stress caused by the pandemic. To find out more about the impact of COVID-19 on the project, we reached out to Dr. Lupien and her postdoc Laurence Dumont in a recent email exchange.

In one or two sentences, can you describe the focus of your HBHL-funded research? 

Sonia Lupien: Our project initially focused on stress and mental health during a graduate student’s transition from studying in university to the workplace. It also evaluates the effectiveness of an online stress management program, Stress Inc, to reduce stress and mental health problems during this time of big lifestyle changes. 

How did the shutdowns due to COVID-19 impact the team? How did you adapt? 

Laurence Dumont: COVID-19 created two major hurdles that the project team had to address. First, we can't gather any biological samples during the pandemic as our project hasn’t been deemed essential—a decision that I completely agree with! Second, any current findings we will have about stress levels in graduating students will show the impact of the pandemic on their mental health, rather than the cause of stress that we were initially trying to study. 

As a result, we’ve made two major changes to our methods of data collection. First, we decided to contact all of our previously recruited graduate student participants for a second round of data collection about their stress levels during the pandemic. This data will allow us to see if using Stress Inc. helped them adapt to the crisis and if previous levels of chronic stress can help predict an individual’s ability to psychologically adapt to a crisis. With this new angle, we’ll be able to reach the initial research objectives of our HBHL-funded project, but in a slightly different way. We have also made similar changes to other research projects in our lab, which will give us a unique set of data with pre-crisis measurements of stress hormones.  

Our second change was to launch an anonymous survey for the general public to measure the same indicators of mental health used in our graduate student project. So far, over 1,000 individuals have participated in this new study, about 20% of whom are students. This survey will not only allow us to collect data about the mental health of students during the pandemic; but will also provide us with data from a much wider sample of the population and offer useful results for the general public. 

How has the previous work done on the project positioned the team so well to study stress during the pandemic?  

LD: Our lab has always put a strong emphasis on science communication, developing knowledge transfer programs and considering the needs of the general population when planning our next projects. Given that stress, anxiety and mental health have played an important part in recent conversations around COVID-19, it made sense to adapt our methods of data collection to take these topics into account. While preparing our new projects, we received a lot of questions from the public and from different organizations, which confirmed the relevance of this new direction. The importance of our work has really been made clear to all of us during this crisis. 

How might your research findings lead to better health for Canadians?  

SL: One of our main goals for the general public study is to make the results easily accessible. This will help to not only make sense of the COVID-19 crisis from a mental health standpoint but also enable the general public to adapt to similar events in the future. Our evaluation of the effectiveness of Stress Inc. will also help us improve the program and allow us to make it available to even more people in the future. 

In addition to her research around mental health, Dr. Lupien has taken an active role in the conversation around stress and mental health in Quebec. She posts daily on her blog, has made several recent appearances in the media and recently launched a webseries with her collaborators on stress and COVID-19. Dr. Lupien has also been training her students involved in the HBHL-funded project to be part of the public conversation around their research, in the hopes that they will become influential experts in their future careers in science. 

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