When the COVID-19 pandemic reached our communities during the start of the new year, our daily routines and plans instantly changed. The novel Coronavirus produced a global health challenge with long-term consequences to our world's health and socioeconomic wellbeing. 

Seeking to understand the behavioral mechanisms surrounding the stress of this pandemic and its impacts on addiction and mental health, Mustafa al'Absi, PhD, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health and principal investigator for the Stress and Resilience Laboratories (SRRL) at the University of Minnesota Medical School, quickly put together an international team to develop a global study survey that would map out the dynamics of how people were adjusting as the pandemic escalated worldwide. 

“The pandemic presented a challenge that we could learn a lot from,” Dr. al’Absi said. “It shed light on how ill-prepared our world was in confronting such a crisis. Analyzing how people have adapted will best prepare us to develop specific interventions that can help us all cope better.” 

In late March, the SRRL team launched an English version of the study survey, Stress and Resilience in the Face of the Novel Coronavirus, through funded research within the SRRL and leveraging resources obtained through Dr. al’Absi’s grants from the National Institutes of Health. From there, the team worked with their partners around the globe to make the survey available in early April to countries affected by the pandemic. To do this, the survey was translated into eight languages—French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Bulgarian. 

“We incorporated a variety of questions into the survey related to mental health, substance abuse, stress, resilience and socioeconomic factors,” Dr. al’Absi explained. “The first step would be to focus on 'clearing the air' from misinformation by focusing on strategies to reduce catastrophizing of the pandemic. The second step would be to promote a sense of normalcy with simple, short-term tips on how to organize a daily routine, how to cope with sleep issues and engaging in physical activities—all in a manner that’s appropriate to your level, age and life situations.” 

Novel Findings

In the team’s preliminary report, responses indicated a great deal of uncertainty across multiple life domains, causing increased psychological challenges. Respondents generally felt more stressed, depressed, anxious, nervous and more overwhelmed since the new Coronavirus began to spread. The interim report also revealed that participants experienced a decrease in restful sleep. Focusing on the data around substance abuse through nicotine, cannabis and alcohol, the majority of respondents indicated that they continued to use at the same rate or increased their use since the start of COVID-19. 

“The consequences of COVID-19 are likely going to be with us throughout our lifetimes and possibly into the future generation,” Dr. al’Absi said. “To the advantage of the next generation, hopefully, we are collecting useful data, even if we are just documenting these experiences.”

Looking Ahead 

Examining the impacts of the pandemic involved significant changes to various life domains; changes that came at a cost to our relationships, work situations and overall well-being. The global health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has already altered how we will live and deliver services for years to come. With the changing landscape, the SRRL team is leading these future efforts in defining stress and promoting resilience. It’s a critical first step for developing the means to address the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic. “The future is already here,” Dr. al’Absi said. “As human beings, we can be resilient—so much more than we are aware of, and we only tap into that capacity when we need it, so eventually, this situation will normalize.” 

Currently, Dr. al’Absi and the SRRL team are working on the next phase of their research, designing a longitudinal study to track respondents over time as the pandemic changes. “The thought of our data outlasting us is fascinating, but it’s very real,” Dr. al’Absi says.“It adds responsibility to all of us in the scientific community, who are living through this, to capture the various data as much as we can.” 

The team will continue to conduct their research in the U.S. and other countries. The initial global survey will remain open. The survey published in English can be accessed here. It is also available in Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, German, Bulgarian and Russian.