8 ways students can manage pandemic anxiety and isolation

How to handle perfectly normal feelings in an abnormal time

Sometimes, mental health is like doing the dishes, where those dishes are the issues we all need to deal with.

“They're piling up,” says NAIT counsellor Komal Kumar. All the time.

If you have a plan to address them as soon as you can, “That's fine. But [if] it's like I'm standing here and I just can't do it, it's too overwhelming, that’s when it's time to get some support.”

Because of the pandemic, Kumar finds that students can fall into either category. Some have never had so much time to do their dishes; their plates, along with their mental health, sparkle. Others simply don’t know how to even begin the job of washing all their cares away.

To make sure the matter doesn’t get out of hand for students – and perhaps to keep them from dwelling on whether there’s even enough soap in all the world to solve the problem at hand – Kumar offers these eight tips for a healthy state of mind in a time of isolation and uncertainty.

1. Know that your feelings are normal

post-secondary student feeling stressed

“We're experiencing something that isn't something we’ve experienced before,” says Kumar. It’s natural that survival mechanisms kick in.

Making our way through a potentially threatening situation can mean fixating on it, bringing on worry, anxiety, fear, anger and, beneath it all, stress. “It's absolutely normal. Everyone's going to respond differently, but there is no right way to respond.”

2. Watch that the feelings don’t overwhelm

Who to call for help

If things get to that point where the dishes cannot be done, extra help may be needed. “[If] any feeling ... starts interfering with day-to-day life, especially if a person feels hopeless, that's when it's like, ‘This might not be headed in a good direction.’”

Signposts indicating that direction may include constant nervousness, a sadness that won’t go away, and hopelessness. Kumar and her Student Counselling colleagues are available to help by video and phone, and there's a 24/7 online service provided by the NAIT Students’ Association. Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton also runs a distress line.

3. Stay connected with others

student friends on video call

We still can’t see people the way we used to, as easily or as often. This can be troubling, since we’re hardwired to want to hang out.

“If you think about it, back in caveman time, the person who was like ‘I'm going to go hunt and gather alone’ probably didn’t make it.” says Kumar. The species survived by being social. This still applies.

Make the most of good weather by joining a friend for a walk, two metres apart. If that’s not possible, opt for video conferencing. In some cases, she adds, there are events to enjoy, too.

As a specialist in supporting NAIT international students, Kumar knows that some young people arrived in Edmonton in January only to be cut off from each other soon after. She organizes virtual lunches and wellness talks to keep building the community during the pandemic. “The only thing you have to do is log in.” Any student is welcome.

4. Explore self-care

It’s important to take time for ourselves, too, to recharge. The trick is to know how to spend it, which Kumar believes can cause more uncertainty among busy students. With time saved from things like no longer commuting, “This is actually a great time to figure that out,” she says.

What were sources of joy when we were younger? Painting? Basketball? “Re-engage with those things,” says Kumar. “The more we take care of ourselves, the better we're going to be able to handle everything else in our life.”

5. Tune out

Limit media consumption, says Kumar. Avoid the conspiracy theorists. Don’t get lost down a rabbit hole of COVID-19 research. Just stay informed enough to stay safe.

6. Don’t worry about the future

young woman looking through binoculars

It's a cruel paradox: The future is unknowable, yet the human desire to know it can be overwhelming. Work on accepting that uncertainty, says Kumar. “Worrying about what's going to possibly happen is wasted energy.”

To stop, refocus on what you can control, Kumar recommends, such as your response to changes. It takes practice. If all else fails, plan for possible outcomes. You’ll never know what’s going to happen for sure, but at least you’ll know what you’ll do if your guess comes to pass.

7. This time, it's OK to compare yourself to others

Even if everyone in your program is not feeling the way you do during the pandemic, they’re being affected by it the same way. That is, if your courses have changed, so have theirs. Your job prospects aren’t what they were? Neither are theirs.

“Everyone is in the same boat, right?”

“Everyone is in the same boat, right?” says Kumar. “It's not just you. That can give people a lot of comfort. Normally I would be like, ‘Don't compare yourself!’ [In this case], it could actually be a benefit to help us through this.”

8. Be grateful (it’s not always easy, but it’s easier than you think)

grateful young woman

It can be hard to be positive when those dishes just keep piling up, which they do for many of us, pandemic or not. Gratitude can help shift your perspective, and lift you out of the rut worn by rehashing thoughts on why things are the way they are.

Take a moment each day to highlight the good. You’re safe. You have a place to live. You’re getting a great education. There’s food in the fridge (and, hopefully, clean plates to eat it off of). Like conquering that fear of the future, this too takes practice, says Kumar.

If the positive is hard to find – and Kumar knows that at times it can be – just take stock of what went well during the day. You did a workout or you submitted your assignment on time. Or, you stayed healthy.

“You can always find something, no matter what.”

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