Tips and Coping Strategies for Students
Focus on "Controllables"
John is going into his freshman year at WVU and is deciding whether he wants to enroll for in-person or online classes. As the start of the semester draws closer, he has been reading the local and national news every day to determine the chances that he would be exposed to COVID-19 if he enrolls for in-person classes. John is very overwhelmed and anxious about this decision, as he does not want to expose himself or others to COVID-19, but he also doesn’t want to miss out on the in-person college experience.
In this example, John is creating more distress for himself by focusing on things that are not in his control, such as national and local news stories and fear of making a “wrong” decision. In this situation, John would be better off detaching from the decision itself, and redirecting his focus to how he can make the best of either experience.
If he decides to attend in-person classes, he could follow the university’s COVID-19 guidelines and come up with a plan to minimize the chances that he will contract COVID-19. This could include being sure to have PPE and sanitizing materials and accepting that his experience will still be very different than the “traditional” college experience.
If he decides to take online classes for the semester, John could direct his focus
to making the online experience mirror an in-person experience as much as possible,
including sticking to a routine, participating in virtual classes, and reaching
out to instructors and fellow students for support. Although John will likely be
disappointed about missing out on the in-person experience, he can remind himself
that he made the best decision he could with the information he had, and he will
try to make the best of a very unique and challenging situation.
Self-compassion is important in the best of times, but it is essential during crises such as a global pandemic. People are often their worst critics, and an unprecedented environment where things are changing rapidly is particularly conducive to self-criticism. Hindsight is 20/20, and we can often beat ourselves up for making a mistake or wrong decision. Take the example of John from above:
Regardless of which decision he makes, John is likely to second-guess his decision at some point. He may experience thoughts such as:
- “What if I made the wrong decision?”
- “I am probably missing out on so much.”
- “Why did I make such a stupid decision?”
- “Did I just ruin my college experience?”
“What if I made the wrong decision?”
“I am probably missing out on so much.”
“I may be missing out on some aspects based on my decision, but I also have a lot of unique opportunities that I may not have had otherwise. I chose the option I did because I believed it was going to be the best decision for me.”
“Why did I make such a stupid decision?”
“I may be regretting my decision right now, but I know that we are in an unprecedented environment and there is no perfect option.”
“Did I just ruin my college experience?”
“Although this semester is different and more challenging than I had expected, I am hopeful that things will return to normal in the long run and I won’t allow this semester to ruin a four-year experience.”
The art of practicing self-compassion is difficult and takes a lot of practice, but it is worth it. Sometimes it can be helpful at the beginning to imagine that we are giving advice to a close friend or family member who was experiencing the same thoughts, because we tend to be much more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Every person is worthy of love and compassion, and it is especially important for us to learn how to give this to ourselves during a time when we are distanced from others.
Like self-compassion, practicing mindfulness can significantly enhance our overall well-being. Put simply, mindfulness relates to focusing on, living in, and experiencing the present as much as possible. Although this may seem scary given the tumultuous nature of our present, mindfulness encourages us to sit back and observe our surroundings and our internal state without judgement.
For example, many students around the country are wondering what the upcoming semester and schoolyear will look like. They may be thinking of all of the things they could miss out on, worrying about whether or not they will contract COVID-19, and/or be concerned that students won’t follow the university’s guidelines. Importantly, all these concerns are logical and valid; they all relate to something in the future, and as much as we would like to know what the future holds, we have no way of knowing what will happen. The only place where we do have control is in the present moment. Here are some examples of common thought patterns I have heard from students:
- “What am I going to do if classes go online all year?”
- “What will happen if I get COVID-19 and infect someone who is at higher risk?”
- “I’m not going to let this ruin my social life. If I get sick, I get sick, but I’m young so I’ll be fine.”
- “This whole year is going to suck."
All these thought patterns are rooted in the future, and unless we are fortune tellers, we have no way of knowing what is going to happen. Instead of trying to come up with solutions to every possible scenario (remember, we are problem solvers!), we can save ourselves a lot of energy and distress by redirecting our attention to the present moment. We can remind ourselves that we have no way of knowing what the future will hold, but we can trust that we will make the best decision we can when the time comes to decide. We can sit back and observe our emotions without judgement, understanding that anxiety is a normal response to a new and threatening situation. From there, we can redirect our attention to our present environment and take note of what we are experiencing (smell, touch, taste, touch, hear) at that time to fully connect our mind and body to the present moment.
Find something that gives you meaning
In the current environment, it may take some creativity and experimentation to find a meaningful outlet, but I promise you that it is worth it. It is also important to be patient and compassionate towards yourself throughout this process. I often encourage students to think about their interests across their lifespan because our past experiences are often a great source of insight into our present.
Were there ever hobbies or activities that you were interested in or wanted to try, but couldn’t? What about things that you used to enjoy but had to give up? Think hard about these! It could be something as small as exercising more, learning to play an instrument, gardening, or learning to speak a new language. Once you think of something that sounds interesting, it is essential that you commit to it. It is likely to be challenging at first, particularly if this is something you haven’t done before. Be patient and kind to yourself! As you continue to make this activity a structured part of your daily life, you will not only notice that you are getting better at it, but also that the activity has become a meaningful part of your daily routine.
Look at the roots instead of the branches
Bianca is very anxious about the upcoming semester. Although she performs well academically, she is concerned that the limitations on social interactions will significantly impact her emotional well-being. She is in a sorority and has made what she believes will be lifelong connections with several of her sisters and classmates. In the current climate, Bianca is terrified of what her life will look like outside of the classroom, and she is skeptical that she can maintain these close relationships with the COVID-19 protocols in place. At home, Bianca spends a lot of time with her diabetic grandmother who is at high risk of complications if she were to contract COVID-19.
All of Bianca’s concerns are valid, and it’s understandable why she is anxious about her ability to socialize during the upcoming school year. Her anxiety and fear are clear indicators that she values friendships and connections, which are healthy and developmentally appropriate values. If we can look beneath the emotions, we can see that friendships and connections are at the core of her current anxieties.
Before COVID-19, her ability to form these connections and spend quality time with these individuals helped her have rich, meaningful experiences. Now that her ability to spend time with these people is limited, it is understandable why she is experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Rather than fighting the emotions or pushing them away because they are uncomfortable, focusing on the roots of her distress (she values friendships and social interactions) can help Bianca understand and accept her uncomfortable feelings without judgment.