home Features Resilience, Recovery, and a Return to Campus Life 

Resilience, Recovery, and a Return to Campus Life 

By Maeve O’Keeffe

In March 2020, if you’d told me that my Thursday afternoon tutorial would be the last  hour of ‘in-person’ college I would have until September 2021, I would have cried. Whether  naivety, ignorance, or optimism was to blame, I had anticipated a mere fortnight of lockdown  with my family in rural Kilkenny. The detox from my hectic schedule as a fresher was novel,  though naturally I was reluctant to part with my budding friendships for even two weeks. Little  did we know what we were in for, right?  

A year and a half later, envisioning walking into a lecture theatre once again is almost  exhilarating. Even getting to hold a physical copy of this paper is refreshing following an  academic year of relentless exposure to laptop screens. Though I am well aware that the  pandemic is not over, a return to campus is more than welcome. It is necessary. Seeing the  masked faces of our classmates will always trump the anonymity and coldness of initials  presented in neat boxes on a Microsoft Teams call. The camaraderie that characterises the  university experience will once again be facilitated by access to campus, and our learning can  return to a more engaging, interactive format. 

As we re-emerge from our enforced hibernation from all things UCC, I’d like to  commend you, reader. How resilient have we been to get this far? College students were, at  many points during the past eighteen months, almost entirely neglected by the government.  Studying from home, often without adequate space or resources, social interactions from  behind a screen in your childhood bedroom, and a bleak exam season with little light at the end  of the tunnel saw many students struggle with mental health issues. Accompanied by stress and  anxiety surrounding restrictions and the wellbeing of loved ones, the feeling of watching our  youth slip away like sand in an hourglass while we idly ‘stayed home’ was challenging to  overcome. But we did it. 

To second year students, I’d particularly like to applaud your resilience. The uncertainty  and stress surrounding your leaving certificate, followed by an altogether underwhelming and  isolated entrance into third level cannot have been easy. Trust me, it gets better. 

And to freshers, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to UCC. I can only be envious of the journey that awaits you in university here. Embrace it. Get stuck in to as many activities  you can, and take the chance to try out that club or society that piques your interest, even if  your friends aren’t bothered. You’ll soon find a network of likeminded individuals, and realise  that the social scene in UCC is almost parochial in how easy it can be to form connections.  

The past eighteen months have been immensely taxing, as our normal routines were discarded. We were forced to adapt to drastic lifestyle changes, and suddenly obscure terms  like “close contact,” “quarantine,” “self-isolation,” and “social distancing” became embedded in our everyday vocabulary. Without wishing to dismiss the horrific experiences of loss and  loneliness that haunted some of us during the pandemic, a return to some version of our former  existence as a community on campus is a source of hope now. The truth is that despite how  bleak the reality of living, studying, and working during a global pandemic has been, clinging to the idea that one day, this would all be over, allowed us to imagine a brighter future. Finally,  this brighter future is feeling more tangible as we move towards a full reopening of society.  

In psychology, there is a concept called affective forecasting. Affective forecasting  refers to how we, as humans, predict our future emotional state. Imagine if you won the lottery,  for instance. Imagine how happy you’d feel, knowing that you need never face financial  hardship ever again, that your family and friends would be well looked after, that you could finally take the holiday of your dreams, and never have to work again if you didn’t want to.  You may be envisioning a life of eternal bliss, with the expectation that your ecstasy at winning  the lottery would not be dulled. Conversely, if you were to imagine losing the use of your limbs in a terrible accident, you may presume that your life would feel empty and unfulfilled  forevermore. 

However, studies exploring affective forecasting have revealed that generally speaking,  we are atrocious at predicting how future events will affect our moods. Specifically, we tend  to grossly overestimate the extent to which our moods will be affected by possible future  events. Psychologists have termed these biases in our forecasting of future emotional states “impact bias” and “durability bias.” Essentially, when anticipating how future events will alter  our moods, we have an exaggerated perception of both the length and intensity of our emotional  states. We imagine future events hold more power to cause us distress or elation than they  actually do. 

ecstasy at winning  the lottery would not be dulled. Conversely, if you were to imagine losing the use of your limbs in a terrible accident, you may presume that your life would feel empty and unfulfilled  forevermore. 

However, studies exploring affective forecasting have revealed that generally speaking,  we are atrocious at predicting how future events will affect our moods. Specifically, we tend  to grossly overestimate the extent to which our moods will be affected by possible future  events. Psychologists have termed these biases in our forecasting of future emotional states “impact bias” and “durability bias.” Essentially, when anticipating how future events will alter  our moods, we have an exaggerated perception of both the length and intensity of our emotional  states. We imagine future events hold more power to cause us distress or elation than they  actually do. 

 Even the most agonizing of heartaches can subside in  time, even if initially, returning to happiness seems an insurmountable feat. 

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this gives us food for thought. It would be an  understatement to point out that the pandemic has dramatically changed our lifestyles,  behaviours, and emotions. Initially naïve to the extent of the crisis we were facing in March  2020, we faced long months of isolation and loneliness, largely in the dark about how long we  would have to endure such a restricted existence. I remember sitting in the passenger seat having been collected from Cork back in March 2020, and my father warning me that “we could be in this until Christmas yet, you know.” I dismissed my old man as being melodramatic,  but I cannot help but wonder now, how I would have reacted had I known just how long it  would be before I saw some of my friends and family again. 

Applying the research regarding affective forecasting to this experience, however, I  can assume that even if I had been aware of the severity of the pandemic, my anticipations of  my emotions during more than a year of lurching from lockdown to lockdown would have been  misguided. Though many of us were confronted by overwhelming negativity and sadness during seemingly never-ending lockdowns, we have also soldiered on, and made the most of  the reopening of outdoor dining and easing restrictions this summer. During a time when we  were largely preoccupied with boosting our physical immune system with vitamins and handwashing, we may have neglected to factor in the powerhouse that is the psychological  immune system.  

Perhaps the concept of a psychological immune system sounds somewhat nebulous, but hear me out. Though it may not always feel like it, we are remarkably resilient creatures. We  are hardwired to recover from all manner of setbacks, and yet we continue to doubt our abilities  to do so. In psychology, this intrinsic resilience is known as the “psychological immune  system.” Our psychological immune system enables us to bounce back after challenging  experiences and difficult emotions, protecting us against the stressors and negative emotions  in our daily lives just as our physical immune system is responsible for guarding us from  infection and illness.  

So why do we underestimate our abilities to recover from setbacks in life? Well, some  psychologists have suggested that we overestimate the intensity and length of negative mood  states because we fail to acknowledge how positive events may ameliorate the effects of these  setbacks. Even small gestures or comforting activities can facilitate our bouncing back from hard times. Unfortunately, we are sometimes inclined to overlook these positives, leading us  to make more dramatic predictions about the intensity and durability of our bad moods.  

Looking back, there is a lot to be said for the ways in which we somehow managed to  cope with the flux of change that we were confronted with in March and April, 2020. Think  back to how we compiled those Zoom quizzes in an attempt to nurture a sense of connection  with friends and family, or how we all took on social media challenges ranging from runs in  aid of charity to bizarre raw egg-swallowing, to emulate the unity of interpersonal  engagements. We watched Normal People on RTE and collectively cringed at the thoughts of  watching Marianne and Connells’ sex scenes with family members. We even got to enjoy not  one, but two surprise albums from Taylor Swift while helping out neighbours with their grocery  shopping, experimenting with sourdough starters, and discovering the joys of a nice walk to  relieve stress.  

With each lockdown, the novelty of spending time alone subsided, and our optimism  about the effectiveness of the guidelines waned a little. Still, we found ways to continue. Some  of us facetimed others while studying for exams, to inhibit the loneliness and stress that can  accompany facing exams and assignments alone. Many of us stopped watching the news, or  muted notifications on Twitter, just to block out the negativity for a period. Even though the  lockdowns were grim, and our resilience was tested, we found new ways to stay going through  the most taxing of circumstances.  

When we look at these shared experiences from our periods of isolation, core  components of the “antibodies” of our psychological immune system are evident. Connectedness is one of the most vital aspects of our psychological immune system as  identified by psychologists, and in our Zoom calls with friends and efforts to help out the  vulnerable of our community, this is apparent. Mindset is another important antibody in our psychological immune system’s reserve, as we learned to accept that we cannot control the  uncontrollable, as much as we might like to. We distracted ourselves from the distressing situation we found ourselves in with creative projects and media. Above all, we nurtured a  sense of hope that one day, we would return to normality. 

As this return to normality is just around the corner, we are confronted by new complex emotions and anxieties. Just as the transition to living under strict lockdown measures was  challenging, the return to some shade of normality may also be difficult, as we re-adjust to our  old routines and obligations. So if you’re feeling a little bit anxious, take it easy. Have faith in your resilience. It’s looked after you well so far.  

*** 

Naturally, the research about affective forecasting and our psychological immune  system cannot be used to dismiss the challenges faced by individuals suffering from depression or mental health issues. Though the research proposes that we are predisposed to bounce back  after encounters with adversity, the truth is that our resilience may be eroded over time by a  complex web of individual and social factors. If you are in need of support, UCC’s student  counselling service provides free counselling sessions as well as a range of helpful online  therapeutic programmes and resources. To get in touch, send an email to counselling@ucc.ie

 

Keep up to date:

Twitter: @UCC_Express

Instagram: @UCC_Express

Facebook: @UCC_Express