One year ago, an article focused on the strain that many have experienced because of stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both tangible (illness, loss of income) and psychological (anxiety of the unknown, lack of control over the situation) and the services that are available to our undergraduate students through Counseling and Psychological Services. Both forms of stressors can be harmful to one’s mental health, and it’s all too easy to turn to bad habits to cope, such as downing that extra-large dessert on a regular basis or forgoing exercise routines and regular health checkups.
Susan K. Salem, PhD, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, says that it’s more important than ever to develop self-care routines and ways of coping. Below are some of her favorite ways to combat stress. Feel free to adopt them or develop your own; the important thing to remember is that each act can be a small thing, but looking to do as many as possible throughout the day will help combat the stress and feeling that you have no control over your environment and your reactions to the big picture.
Open up: Talk to people who are close to you about what’s bothering you; don’t just hold it all in. “It’s good to just get it out, and a lot of times you can find commonality with people. For example, a lot of women are saying that they can’t remember the last time they put on lipstick or they say, ‘I only put on lipstick for Zoom.’”
Look for humor: There’s a lot of funny things on social media, for example. People are posting cartoons and sharing them with friends or on their platforms.
Express gratitude: “This can be hard, because it’s easy to want to only complain about what’s going wrong in the world. But if you can express three good things at the end of the day, even something as simple as ‘I was glad to get that book from Amazon today,’ that really contributes to a decrease in anxiety and depression and helps you build resistance to getting mired in the negative.”
Practice self-compassion: Many students were telling Salem that their professors have been giving them extensions here and there or similarly working with them in these difficult times. But we have to give ourselves a break, too. “Don’t beat yourself up too much for not doing the 10 errands in two hours that you used to do. Realize that we’re exhausted after one hour because everything is more difficult now. You have to remember your mask and maybe gloves or sanitizer. The rules are constantly changing and everything is more challenged, so flexibility is good. Acknowledge that you may not be able to do as much. We’re a lot more tired, I think. I know I am. Listen to your body and treat it well. Try to get more sleep.”
Find creative and safe ways to socialize: During the early phase of the pandemic, Salem started talking to five of her college roommates, even though prior connections were inconsistent. Now the group is having monthly Zoom sessions. She’s also connecting with more people on individual calls. “Reconnecting with people has been a lot of fun.”
Salem acknowledges that it’s difficult to establish new habits or ways of viewing the world, and it’s not a linear progression: everyone has ups and downs. She admits to working more hours, which is exhausting, and falling into the trap of trying to do everything. But she’s very aware that if she doesn’t combat that cycle, “at some point then I won’t be good to help anybody. So I’m pretty good at self care,” she says. “I exercise frequently, I talk to a lot of friends, I’m starting to meditate more, although I don’t do it enough. And I pray; my faith is important to me.
“It’s really important to not get overwhelmed by the anxiety and to do what you can to let go of what you can’t control. Things will get better, eventually.”