It goes without saying that the global pandemic has left no one untouched as we now enter the year and a half mark when stay at home orders and mask mandates were placed in effect in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Sadly, colleges and universities are all too familiar with mounting feelings of stress as many institutions have seen an increase in rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. A survey completed by Boston University in 2021 that looked at nearly 33,000 college students from across the United States saw increased rates of anxiety and depression, with half of college students in 2020 showing signs of depression and anxiety. A shocking 83% of these same students expressed that their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance over the past month. College students continue to carry the same high demands that come with collegiate academics, all while trying to navigate the unfamiliar territory of virtual courses, online exams, and Zoom group meetings. Additionally, students’ local support systems may not be as accessible and they may struggle with finding local supports.
Having worked side-by-side with college and university students as a clinician for the last couple years, I have seen the significant impact the pandemic has had on young adults — incoming freshmen expressing loneliness and isolation in a new and unfamiliar place, seniors feeling robbed of the pivotal graduation milestones, and so many students expressing fear and worry as the uncertainty of the global pandemic continues to weigh heavier on their shoulders as each day passes. These are, sadly, all too familiar themes.
We are all social creatures. Some of us may prefer less or more company than others, but one thing we all have in common is that we need and thrive on connection. Take away the ability for us to connect in ways that feel meaningful, such as being in the same physical space as another human being, and how could you not feel anxious, overwhelmed, and sad?
While all of us, regardless of age and education level, are social beings, college is a particularly unique time where young adults begin to explore who they authentically are, majority of which occurs in the context of our relationships with others. College life involves living, working, socializing, and learning together. The current pandemic, however, has taken away so many of these opportunities.
As both a human being and a clinician, I can empathize with the tremendous struggles facing college students as they try their hardest to navigate the continued global pandemic.
So, what can be done? In times that are undeniably unpredictable and stability is hard to find, is it possible to feel a sense of relief and “normalcy”? How do we support ourselves and/or those in our lives who are struggling?
- Acknowledge your experience. This may seem simple, and it is perhaps one of the most valuable things you could offer yourself or someone else. Each of our experiences are valid. The current state of the world is emotionally and physically draining, with each of us experiencing the impact differently. There may be a voice in your head saying “Well, everyone is going through the same thing and they all seem to be going about life just fine.” Yes, sadly we are all experiencing the global pandemic. It has impacted us all in both similar and different ways. However, that does not make your experience any less valid. Your suffering and struggles mean just as much. How we speak to ourselves has an impact on our internal experience. This invalidating voice will, more likely than not, leave you feeling dismissed, overwhelmed, and undervalued. A more validating internal dialogue of “Everyone is going through the same thing and still my feelings (i.e., sadness, anxiety, loneliness) matter” allows space for compassion and acceptance of where you are. It’s important to make sure these validating words feels authentic though. If my wording doesn’t click with you then find a compassionate way to speak to yourself that does.
- See your accomplishments. Let’s face it, we are all often our own worst enemies. Particularly in times when we are already feeling emotional and physically depleted, it can be so easy as our day goes on to see all the things we “should” have done differently. For those of us who are self-identified perfectionists this is all too familiar. Sometimes we can feel that if we just focus on all the things we could maybe improve on, then maybe we will ultimately feel better. Our brains are trying to be helpful (sort of), but these impossibly high standards often leave us feeling even worse. It is challenging to go against the grain, and sometimes taking time at the end of our day to simply write out and reflect on what we are proud of or have accomplished can combat our more perfectionistic tendencies. No matter how small it may feel, even if it’s the fact that you got out of bed or took a shower, it matters. In our most difficult moments, it takes courage and strength to simply rise from our beds in the morning and your this deserves to be recognized.
- Use your support system. Regardless of if you are an introvert or an extrovert (or somewhere in between), we all need connection. Our support system helps us to know and feel that we have a place to rest when we are exhausted and be a sounding board for our struggles. It can be hard to put our experiences into words, and sometimes even harder to have those experiences be heard by others. There is also healing that can occur from simply putting words to our internal world. I have been told by so many of the people I work with that simply having a space where they are heard is relieving in and of itself. If sharing it all doesn’t feel safe, that’s okay. Find a way that feels comfortable for you and allows you to still communicate what you need to say. Support systems don’t always have to be people either. For many (myself included), our pets can often be a huge part of our lives and are just as much a part of our support system as the people who are in it. Whatever and whoever is a part of that group, lean on them in a way that feels manageable and supportive for you.
- Do what brings you peace. We all have different ways of grounding ourselves and decompressing after a difficult day. For me, any engagement with nature will likely be healing for me and it is often my go to in times of stress. Add my two dogs into the mix and it’s even better! What leaves you breathing a little easier? What helps you to feel whole? Does a particular kind of music usually help center you a bit? How about getting your thoughts out on paper and locked away in a personal journal? Whatever it is for you, I would challenge you to try just one. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. When we are struggling, the thought of doing something can be overwhelming and even feel impossible. Try setting a timer for just five minutes and giving yourself that designated time to focus on your peace. Remember, even if that invalidating voice is saying you shouldn’t need it, you deserve it and owe it to yourself just as much as you give it to others.
By Dr. Brittany Findlan, LPC, Psy.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow at Mindful Psychology Associates