Back to College: Tips for Managing Student Stress & Mental Health in a Pandemic

09.22.2021

With the intensive nature of courses and high-performance expectations, going off to college for the first time or heading back for another year is enough to send student stress levels soaring. But given the unknowns of the pandemic, the threat of the extremely contagious Delta variant, and the fact that many states, municipalities, and schools have reduced restrictions while COVID-19 threat levels remain elevated, this could be the most stressful situation college students have ever faced.

Sources of Student Stress

In the early summer months of 2021, COVID-19 cases were down, vaccinations were in full swing, and it looked like colleges and universities would essentially be back to business as usual in the fall. However, this didn’t last long, and college students have had to adjust their mindsets once again. Entering the fall semester, college students may be struggling with the idea of attending classes in-person or living in campus housing as many safety protocols can go unenforced.

The uncertainty about vaccine effectiveness against the highly contagious Delta variant is another significant source of student stress this semester. As Dr. Daniel Weiss, staff psychiatrist at Talkiatry, explained, “Vaccinated students may have a false sense of security that they are immune to illness, in part, due to prior messaging about the efficacy of vaccines in both preventing transmissions of COVID-19 and severe illness (the latter of which is still accurate in most cases).” He stressed the importance of maintaining a social distance and adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols while on campus due to the heightened risk of transmission of the Delta variant.

A recent study revealed that 95% of college students have experienced negative mental health symptoms due to COVID-19-related circumstances, and almost half (48%) of those students believe these mental health effects have directly impacted their education. In addition, students face increased levels of worry, anxiety, and depressive thoughts from stressors such as fears for their own health and that of their loved ones, disruptions in sleep patterns, and decreased social interactions.

How to Limit Student Stress & Maintain Mental Health

The importance of taking care of physical and mental health has never been greater for college students. If you’re currently in college, here are ten strategies you can use to cope with the stress and anxiety you may be feeling due to the pandemic—and the demands of college life in general.

1. Set a morning & night routine: 

Keeping a consistent routine can give you peace of mind by bringing order and control to some aspects of your life. A daily morning routine ensures that you are starting the day off right, while an evening routine ensures that you are going to bed able to relax, knowing that everything has been taken care of for that day.

2. Eat healthy meals at regular hours: 

When you have a long list of things to do, it can be easy to forget to eat. Suddenly, you realize you haven’t eaten all day, so you scarf down a bowl of mac-and-cheese at 10 pm. Instead, make sure you set time aside each day to eat, whether it’s in between classes or while you’re doing homework.

3. Exercise regularly:

Studies have shown that just 30 minutes of exercise can significantly positively impact your mental health. If you can’t make it or aren’t going to the gym due to the COVID threat level, take daily walks to help clear your mind.

4. Minimize consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and recreational substances: 

These substances may ease some of your negative emotions in the short term, but they aren’t a healthy means to cope with mental illness. In fact, increasing your consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and recreational substances may exacerbate your mental health conditions.

5. Make time for social interaction: 

Having a simple conversation with someone can help lighten your mood and make you feel happier. Unfortunately, we’ve missed many opportunities to interact with friends and family during the pandemic. To maintain your mental health, make social interactions a priority, even if they have to be virtual.

6. Set safety & health boundaries: 

In these times of uncertainty, you can and should set personal boundaries with your peers and educators. Every person has their own beliefs and expectations in regards to social distancing, masking, and other precautionary measures. It’s more than ok to set expectations and create boundaries, but keep in mind it’s essential to respect the boundaries of others as well.

7. Take advantage of your college’s mental health resources: 

Dr. Daniel Weiss advises students to take advantage of their college’s wellness and medical programs as well as peer-led support groups and activities. These services are typically free and could make a huge difference in your mental health and overall sense of wellbeing.

8. Reward yourself: 

Take time to appreciate your hard work and reflect on your accomplishments, no matter how big or small they are. For example, did you follow your daily routine every morning and every night for a week? Celebrate your success in a healthy way, like making time for self-care or taking a break to enjoy the sunset or sunrise—as long as it’s something that sparks joy for you. Use the pride you feel from this accomplishment to boost your motivation for the next goal you work on.

9. Take time to enjoy hobbies: 

Studies show that students who enjoy hobbies are less likely to experience stress, low moods, and depression. So instead of de-stressing by watching TV or snacking mindlessly, try doing an activity that allows you to clear your mind while providing you with a much-needed break from screens.

10. Disconnect from negativity: 

Surrounding yourself with negative messages—whether it’s from social media, news outlets, or even friends—only hurts your mental health. The importance of staying informed can’t be denied, but it is easy to become consumed with all the negativity circulating. Be sure to disconnect from the internet from time to time and avoid any situations that may cause unnecessary stress.

It will take time for the threat of COVID-19 to subside and for universities to return to normal operations. Given the current circumstances, it’s up to you to take action to ensure you have a successful, healthy semester.

Practicing these suggestions can help improve your overall mental health; however, if your symptoms become unmanageable or interfere with your ability to function or enjoy daily life, it may be time to seek professional help.

How Talkiatry Can Help

Talkiatry, an outpatient mental health practice, provides diagnosis and treatment plans for patients (including college students) to help manage COVID-related stress, anxiety disorders, and symptoms, including psychotherapy and medication.

Our affordable, in-network psychiatric care model is tailored to meet all your needs. In addition, we offer flexible telemedicine and in-office appointment options to match our therapeutic and modern approach to psychiatric care.

If you believe you (or your college student) are suffering from unusually high stress or an anxiety disorder as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, please don’t hesitate to seek treatment from a medical professional. Start the process by taking our free and easy assessment to receive a preliminary diagnosis and gain a better understanding of your symptoms. You will then be matched with one of our psychiatrists, who will provide you with a customized treatment plan to help manage your symptoms.

Take the assessment today to get started.

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