Coping with Stress

Right now, across the U.S., students are having to deal with a lot of emotions. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate, university students are entering their second or third weeks of social distancing. 

With everything changing so rapidly – being ripped away from their routines, leaving behind friends and fellow peers and dealing with the future's uncertainty – it is expected that students will be dealing with a lot of mental and emotional distress. 

Students everywhere can be in the in-between of feeling ‘kind of stressed’ to ‘overly anxious’ as they are tucked away in isolation and managing their course-loads without the stable structure of attending in-person classes. 

Director of the UT Psychological Clinic Leticia Flores explained the pandemic is an equalizer as many students are working through isolation.

“I often hear from students that they can be surrounded by thousands of people and still feel very alone and very isolated. ... This pandemic is an equalizer,” Flores said. “So everyone is finding themselves in very similar situations with social distancing and isolating.” 

And that isolation, as well as the unclear timeline, can be one of the primary factors impacting mental health for students. Infectious diseases like coronavirus can be one of the most distressing disasters to deal with psychologically according to the Institute for Disaster Mental Health

Typically with natural disasters, the Institute’s news release explained that while the physical and emotional recovery process may be long, there is a clear point of ‘the worst is over.’ With disease outbreaks, there is no clear timeframe leaving the body in a perpetual state of bracing for a threat which essentially will take a toll on individuals’ bodies and minds.

Associate Director of the UT Psychological Clinic Sarah Thompson said that during this time it’s important to focus on behavioral activation in two parts, the first of which is accomplishing things such as making a list and simply checking off simple tasks. The other is building ways to have fun and relax, like taking walks and finding activities to do.

In addition to completing simple tasks, it’s also important for students to give themselves space and not judge themselves or others. Everyone will have different reactions to the pandemic, including how the body reacts, so being kind and letting the body and mind heal on their own time will help.

Thompson also said that to help decrease some anxiety, it’s important to be mindful and focus on the present.

“A lot of anxiety often comes from an over-emphasis on the future, planning on the future and obviously we all have to plan some for the future, that’s important, but in this time of a lot of uncertainty I think it’s pretty easy to get locked into ‘what is that going to look like,’ ‘oh no,’ ‘catastrophe,’ ‘everything’s going to be terrible,’” Thompson said. “So, a big part of this also I would say is finding ways to still focus on the present, thinking about what you can do right now that will be positive for your life just today, just this next hour.”

She added that planning for the near future is an effective way to remain focused on the present.

“Just planning for shorter term situations can take away this sense of planning one month, six months, five years in advance and feeling that sense of anxiety or stress,” Thompson said.

As time in quarantine stretches out, it's important to have a consistent routine to help ground oneself which includes exercising, getting the right amount of nutrients and sleeping. Routines help with forming good habits and can bring a feeling of normality to the situation.

In addition, individuals should take the time to learn something new to help fulfill the soul as restlessness increases such as learning to cook or a new language. 

Both Flores and Thompson stressed the importance of reaching out and staying connected with family and friends. 

“I want to add, not only is it important for all of us to report to other people to help, but I think it’s important for us to ask for help as well,” Flores said. “I think students are in this really interesting time of their life where they’re becoming much more independent, they’re becoming their adult selves and a lot of times that means getting some distance from your parents … I’m sure parents are very concerned about students, especially if they’re not living at home with them and so reconnecting, letting the parents sort of nurture them and care for them and appreciating that I think can also be very beneficial at this time.”

In the case that students are beginning to worry about their mental health, there are still plenty of resources available. 

Although the UT Counseling Center and the UT Psychological Clinic aren’t taking visits physically, students can still book an appointment to speak with counselors virtually and over the phone.

The UT Counseling Center will provide problem-solving, “one at a time” appointments as opposed to the traditional weekly therapy sessions. The center’s website also said that staff will help students who are beyond Tennessee find services close to their homes.

Students who are in crisis can call 974-HELP or 855-645-3489 to be connected directly to the counselor on call for UT. 

Another good local resource is the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee. The organization provides early intervention, information and client services, as well as advocacy for those in need. 

The World Health Organization also released a flyer for helping to cope with stress during the coronavirus outbreak, including talking to people you trust, gathering the facts from credible news sources, lessening your time listening or watching media coverage that is alarming to you and drawing on the skills from the past that have helped with challenging times. 

The outbreak is also encouraging individuals to become more creative at this time, Flores explained, with therapists making more podcasts, more online groups forming for support and people finding ways to get the help they need through technology.

While there is no certainty about when the COVID-19 pandemic will end and it is unclear how long stay at home orders will last, Thompson said the human brain is very capable of handling and adapting to the changes being thrown at it. 

“Our brains are plastic. The way we interact with the world is malleable. So I think being put into a new situation obviously feels really stressful and strange for a while, but we will adapt,” Thompson said. “I think that’s really, really important for people to know. That they are capable of adapting to this experience that we’re all having and it’s not going to be the end of the world – it will be different – but it will be something that gives us space to try something new.”

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