How to Cope With Stress From Coronavirus

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Due to coronavirus, colleges and universities across the U.S. have been forced to shut their doors and switch over to an at-home, online learning format. But for many students, attending class through a computer is not necessarily as easy — or as stress-free — as it may sound.

Recent studies have found that college students are experiencing a mental health crisis, which has worsened with the COVID-19 outbreak. In a new BestColleges survey, a staggering 81% of students reported feeling increased stress during the pandemic.

In an effort to help students struggling with anxiety and other mental health challenges stemming from the coronavirus, we reached out to a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), Haley Neidich, for advice on what college students can do to ease tensions and continue to excel in school.

Interview With a Mental Health Professional

Portrait of Haley Neidich, LCSW

Haley Neidich, LCSW

Haley Neidich, LCSW, is a licensed mental health professional in private practice specializing in anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Neidich is a graduate of Columbia University's School of Social Work and was on the clinical faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine prior to founding her private practice. Neidich is a passionate advocate for the use of mindfulness and meditation in mental health treatment, particularly in improving anxiety disorders and chronic stress.

College students are stuck at home and facing uncertainty on many levels. What tips do you have to help students cope with anxiety and uncertainty?

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    Self-care, not school work, should be your No. 1 priority. It is impossible to perform in your classes or be a good friend to others if you are not taking care of yourself first.
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    Set healthy boundaries with your loved ones. Especially for students who are home with their parents during this stressful time, it can be difficult to manage the intricacies of those relationships.
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    Set boundaries with yourself. Do not consume news and social media unconsciously. Make a decision about what is healthy for you and stick to it. For people who are experiencing anxiety or depression, a complete halt on access to upsetting news or headlines may be essential.
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    Create a happy workspace. Instead of working from bed, create a clean workspace that makes you feel good. You can add candles, photos of the people you love, or anything that improves your mood. Take a good 30 minutes to identify this workspace and make it special. Ideally your workspace will not be in your bedroom, but if that is not possible, at the very least try to not work from bed, as this behavior may worsen sleep hygiene and contribute to depression.
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    Follow a daily routine. This should include exercise, meditation, eight hours of sleep, and regularly connecting with the people who light you up.

Many students are struggling to concentrate in their online classes. Are there any techniques you would recommend to help students stay focused?

This first thing I would say is that it is normal to struggle with your focus right now, so be gentle with yourself. Even without quarantine and social distancing, everything that is happening in the world is scary and lends to challenges focusing in school.

A clear routine that prioritizes class and coursework earlier in the day — prior to any exposure to the news or social media — is the best and fastest way to turn around focus issues related to online learning. If a student has ongoing focus issues, I would urge them to communicate openly with their teachers about their challenges so that they can problem-solve together.

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What are some classic signs of anxiety and depression among college-aged students?

Anxiety and depression are normal human emotions and experiences. Particularly given what is happening in the world at this time, some symptoms of both anxiety and depression should be expected.

However, if someone's symptoms are ongoing and begin to impact their day-to-day functioning, we would become concerned and would encourage them to seek professional support.

If someone is struggling to sleep or focus on coursework, withdrawing from social interactions, experiencing panic attacks, or facing difficulty in taking care of themselves in any other way, they should contact their school counseling center and ask about resources for online therapy services.

Right now, students lack full access to on-campus resources, like health centers. What steps can they take to ensure they are receiving mental health support, if they need it?

Many health centers provide or give access to online mental health services. If the student health center does not provide such support, students can use apps like BetterHelp or Talkspace for online therapy, or they can contact their insurance company to view a list of therapists currently accepting their insurance for telehealth sessions.

Now is not the time to go without the proper mental health support, so I urge those who are struggling to seek assistance sooner rather than later.

Students may be afraid to open up about their mental health challenges to family, friends, or school professionals. Do you have tips for how to share this information?

Having mental health issues right now is normal. Very likely the person to whom you are disclosing it understands completely and is going through something similar.

The best tip for disclosing your mental health challenges to someone is to ask for what you need from the conversation: "I just need to tell someone" is different from "I need your help."

That said, you do not need to open up to anyone in your life about your mental health challenges if you believe they will be negative, blaming, or critical about what you are going through.

Often people underestimate others' capacities to understand their feelings. Talking with a mental health professional can help you better plan and strategize how to communicate your situation to the people around you.

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When should a student consider requesting school accommodations to cope with mental health challenges?

Any mental health issue that is impeding a student's ability to perform in class or do coursework is potentially worth exploring school accommodations for. Talking directly with your school about what you are experiencing as soon as possible is crucial for obtaining adequate support and accommodations.

Any individual in this situation will require the support of a licensed mental health professional for therapy. The therapist can provide further support to the student who is struggling by advocating for them with the school.

Do you have any other advice for students struggling to cope with the present circumstances?

Currently, the biggest culprit for stress and depression is exposure to the news and news headlines like those you might see on social media. People need to give themselves permission to take a temporary or even permanent break from exposure to this information, which can diminish their health and mental faculties.

I would also say that keeping yourself focused on the present is the absolute best tool available for navigating these challenging times. When we go too wide with our thinking in a situation in which the future is unknown, it can cause severe panic. By staying focused on what we need to accomplish today, we can function more effectively and practice gratitude and self-care.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.