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  • Writer's pictureAudriannah Levine-Ward

Existential Stress: Students and the Pandemic

It would be an understatement to say that students have been impacted by the pandemic. While working as a therapist supporting high school, undergraduate and graduate students, there are a number of major stressors these students have endorsed throughout the pandemic. Initially, many students worried about getting homework done, lack of socializing and what their future might look like post-pandemic. These stressors were understandable given the circumstances and shared among groups of students. The stressors named above remained relatively constant for the first 6 months of the pandemic. Additionally, these stressors could be managed with coping skills, developing and holding routine as well as more practical skills such as time management and boundary setting.

While these stressors continue to be present for many students, there has been an overall shift in the therapeutic work from practical stress management tools, to processing what many students have described as “existential fear” or “existential dread.” Meaning, that many students have endorsed feeling that they do not have control over their futures and in turn, have lower motivation to complete their school work. Additionally, for many of the students I work with who are a part of generation Z, the existential dread has generalized from fear about school and their future, to a larger fear about the world. With many high school and undergraduate students stating that they are now more intimately fearful of global warming, police brutality, another pandemic and economic decline, it makes algebra homework, for example, feeling less applicable or valuable.

Specifically, the issues raised by students throughout the pandemic include feelings of dread, existential fear, panic, anxiety, feelings of depression, lack of motivation, feelings of powerlessness about larger global issues, finding less meaning in school work, lack if interest in things the individual would normally be interested in, issues falling and staying asleep and difficulty concentrating. In addition to the issues mentioned above, many students who were managing mental health issues previous to the pandemic endorsed an increase in symptoms and difficulty managing them. This has included heightened rumination, panic attacks, insomnia, depressed mood, future tripping, substance use and removal from social involvement.

Although the information above can make moving forward as a student during this time appear bleak, there are many skills students can add into their days in order to cope with the circumstances. The skills that can be used by students to improve their mental health fall into three categories - practical skills, mindfulness skills and emotion focused skills.

Practical Skills: For many students, practical skills feel most approachable and are helpful because they are tools that can be put into practice instantly. They help create a container in the student’s mind and home during a time that feels boundless. These skills include setting physical boundaries, creating and maintaining routines as well as engaging in intentional movement. Physical boundary setting includes skills such as, using the bed for sleep, rest and sex, while using the desk or workspace for school and work. This helps create a boundary between where and when the student is working, breaking up the day and allowing helpful detachment from work when needed. This is something that some students have stated has been difficult if they are in dorm rooms or use their computer for all entertainment and work. However, even when used in minor ways, students can find relief from feeling constantly steeped in their school work. Routines in the morning and night can help students feel contained, experience consistency and better track time throughout the day. Every routine created will look different for each student and can be changed to match the students needs. Basic routines can include setting specific times for waking and sleeping, taking intentional meal breaks, creating start and end times for studying and setting intentional time aside to socialize. Lastly, students can benefit from the practical skill of intentional body movement. This can include going for walks, dancing, yoga, or any other online movement class.

Mindfulness Skills: Mindfulness skills can be used in order to best cope with lack of motivation, fearfulness, rumination and the worry about the future that students endorsed. These skills include breathing, attempting to stay in the present, practicing awareness of internal dialogue and meditation. With so many students endorsing worry and fear for the future, being able to remain in the present and come back to the breath is an incredibly helpful skill. This can be done by doing breathing exercises for 1-3 minutes at a time. Attempting to enter stillness and come back to the breath can help students feel more centered, slow down racing thoughts and stay more firmly in the moment. In addition to basic breathing exercises, students can benefit from becoming aware of their internal dialogue. For anyone, students included, mental health and illness can be informed by internal dialogue. Gently noticing what the dialogue is and where it originates from, can help the student notice and if needed, rewrite it to better serve them. Lastly, mindfulness based meditation can be incredibly helpful for students in order to help them manage stress, reduce symptomatology and help the individual feel more capable of coping with stressors they face. For all of the mindfulness skills mentioned above, adding them in for even 1 minute a day, can help students feel more organized, emotionally balanced and more capable of coping with stressors throughout and after the pandemic.

Emotion Focused Skills: Emotion focused skills can help students understand, process and feel more capable of coping with the emotional stressors that come with the pandemic. While there are of course many emotion focused skills an individual can use, the skills I have found most helpful in working with students include: use of the emotions wheel to check-in with self, asking for help, and compassion for self and others. The emotions wheel is something I provide to clients and ask them to bring to session. It is a helpful tool to give language to emotions that the client may not initially have language for. It also creates a more expansive and nuanced understanding of the emotions the student/client may experience throughout their week. In addition to being able to name emotions in order to better understand them, asking for help is a skill that many students struggle to utilize and would benefit from. This may come in the form of asking for assistance from tutors, checking-in with other students and asking for extensions from professors if needed. In addition to the skills mentioned above, students can benefit from practicing compassion for themselves and for others. There is no right way to be a student during a pandemic. Although many students have reflected to me that they feel they should be “rolling with it” and have trouble understanding why they have struggled to adapt to these circumstances. In addition to reminding themselves of the circumstances they are in, students can benefit from compassion in the form of gentle self-love and self-care.

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