College students across the world are struggling with mental health. Add in the uncertainty and upheavals caused by COVID-19, and things get significantly worse. Since the outbreak, nearly seven in 10 college students in the United States have experienced a decline in their mental health, according to a survey conducted by College Pulse.
Experiencing feelings of anxiety, stress or depression is completely natural, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. But if left unchecked, these feelings can begin to fester and prevent you from progressing as a student or achieving your aspirations. For that reason, it’s important to develop healthy coping strategies.
Here are eight tips from psychologists to help you manage your mental health amid COVID-19.
1. Validate your emotional reactions
No matter your specific situation, know that it’s okay to feel anxious, stressed and sad right now.
It’s also important to understand that these feelings will likely come in waves, says Caitlin M. Nevins, the director of psychological services for McLean’s College Mental Health Program and a psychology instructor in Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry.
Some days may feel easier than others, explains Nevins. At times you’ll feel productive. If you’ve Skyped with friends or professors, you may feel connected. But there will be other days where these feelings won’t come as easy.
And for those of you who hold extraordinarily high standards for yourselves in terms of achievement and productivity, it’s okay to give yourselves a break. Understand that the world looks completely different than it did a few months ago, and you don’t necessarily have access to the resources that you did, says Nevins.
2. Develop a routine and stick to it
Anxiety, in particular, is fueled by uncertainty. When people don’t know what’s to come, they can begin to speculate and develop irrational thoughts that something is going to be a lot worse than it truly will be. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as catastrophizing.
“You start to get really really worked up and anxious. All you can see is negative outcomes in front of you. That’s how anxiety spirals,” explains Jelena Kecmanovic, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
These feelings of uncertainty can be minimized by imparting some sort of structure and schedule to your life. Although you may not like it, this means waking up and going to sleep at roughly the same time every day, says Kecmanovic. Take a shower and put on clothes as if you’re going to go somewhere. Schedule times to complete your school work and take breaks.
The routines can be flexible and somewhat different day-to-day, says Kecmanovic. But having a schedule and some idea of what to expect on a given day really helps. Although you can’t control what’s going on in the world, you can at least control your day.
“If you plan it and you actually execute it, it feeds into this sense of self-efficacy and competency,” Kecmanovic adds.
3. Find a designated working space
To keep yourself sane while studying from home, it’s important to designate a specific work space and stick to it.
It doesn’t have to be an office with a mahogany desk and a big leather couch. It could be a dining room table, a desk set up in the corner of your room or a kitchen counter. Preferably, though, the space would not be in a place that you associate with relaxing. While studying remotely, it’s important to keep your work space separated from your chill space. Otherwise, things start to mesh together.
“It really does help to have that protected space,” says Kecmanovic.
4. Practice self-care
Although you’ve likely heard this tip before, taking time to prioritize yourself does wonders in terms of improving and safeguarding your mental health.
Cardio exercises, like running or jumping rope, are particularly beneficial for your mental health, as they increase blood flow to the brain and trigger parts of the brain that impact mood and motivation.
It also really helps to practice mindfulness, which is the mental state of living in the present moment while acknowledging and accepting all of your thoughts, emotions and sensations.
Kecmanovic considers mindfulness practice to be a workout for the mind muscles. You don’t need to spend too much time practicing, she says, just 10 minutes a couple of times a day.
“When you need the mind muscles to regulate your emotions, they are going to be there,” says Kecmanovic. “You’re going to be better at regulating your emotions when you need to.”
If you don’t know where to start, YouTube has free mindfulness instruction videos like this 10-minute Daily Calm video.
And if you’re into yoga, by all means, do yoga, says Kecmanovic. Yoga is particularly useful because it combines components of aerobic and flexibility exercises with mindfulness. For free access to online classes, check out Corepower Yoga or Yoga with Adriene.
5. Get outside
Since we’re all quarantined, studying and working in our own homes, it may be tempting to keep those sweat pants on and stay on the couch all day. But, you can feel it. Too much lazy-sitting and your head starts to get all stuffy, you can’t think straight and you begin to lose your ability to fully manage your emotions.
For the sake of your mental health, get up and go outside if that’s possible where you live, says Kecmanovic.
The act of taking a stroll, preferably out in nature, has been proven to lower stress, anxiety and depression. Stanford researchers determined that those who spend more time out in nature experienced less neural activity in the region of the brain associated with depression than those living in the city.
But even for city-dwellers, it’s still important to get outside and walk around the neighborhood, says Kecmanovic. If you have a porch or a balcony, even that is better than nothing, as getting some natural light can boost your mood and self-esteem.
“Exposure to daylight is crucial in physiological processes,” says Kecmanovic. “That’s why people who live in northern Canada or Europe, a lot of them have developed problems with depression in the winter when there’s little daylight.”
6. Stay connected with friends and family
Video chats can be frustrating and are nothing close to in-person interactions. But, it may benefit you to connect with your friends and family in a way other than through text or social media.
You can’t give them a hug, but some social interaction — other than with the people you’re quarantined with — might feel like a breath of fresh air. Plus, it will reassure you everyone’s in the same boat, waiting for things to get back to normal.
You could get a big group together and have a virtual movie night. There are also fun games that you can play if you need a laugh or merely something new to occupy your brain.
7. Don’t run from your fears
To manage your emotions, you might be tempted to eat, drink or smoke excessively. Maybe you like to binge-watch shows to distract yourself or avidly check the news for something positive and reassuring.
While all of these behaviors can serve as temporary Band-Aids, they don’t address the root of your fears.
“Instead, allow your anxious thoughts, feelings and physical sensations to wash over you, accepting anxiety as an integral part of human experience,” Kecmanovic wrote in an article published in The Conversation. “When waves of coronavirus anxiety show up, notice and describe the experience to yourself or others without judgment. Resist the urge to escape or calm your fears by obsessively reading virus updates. Paradoxically, facing anxiety in the moment will lead to less anxiety over time.”
8. Seek help if you need it
For those of you who feel exceedingly overwhelmed or sad, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.
Reach out to your school’s counseling center first, advises Kecmanovic. Many counseling centers at colleges and universities across the United States have moved to virtual therapy through phone or video calls. And even if you’re in a different state than the one you go to college in, chances are you’ll still be able to seek counseling through your school. Due to COVID-19, laws have been loosened about therapy across state lines so that it can continue.
And if your school doesn’t have the resources to treat you at this time, they will point you in the right direction.
Now is not an easy time to be a college student. What you’ve always been told would be a transformational period in your life, through which you’d meet new people, pursue your intellectual passions and be able to live on your own, has turned into something different.
Uncertainty is higher than ever. Due to COVID-19, you don’t know when you’ll be able to go back to school, where you’ll see your friends next or if you’ll be able to land an internship this summer. On top of that, there are the stressors shared by everyone regarding health and job loss.
Remember, though, this time will end and that the rest of the country is in the same position. Follow these tips in the time being to bolster your mental health. And if life becomes too overwhelming, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.