Advice for College Student Dealing with Anxiety During this Pandemic

A global pandemic, finals, graduation, not knowing what’s next — you might be feeling more stressed than usual right now, but there are still ways to take care of yourself.  

HerCampus talked to Dr. Kirsten Thompson, M.D., board-certified psychiatrist, clinical instructor at UCLA, and founder of the telehealth company Remedy (launching in June 2020), who shared that optimizing our mental health is the most important thing we can do right now. 

Dr. Thompson explained that how we feel inside informs how we see our bodies, ourselves, and the world. She said that if we’re anxious, the world may seem scary and we might have a tendency to limit ourselves to reduce our fear. And if we’re depressed, we may ruminate on our failures and may not recognize our success. Although we can’t always control our mental health and how we’re feeling, we can take steps to make it a priority and be as healthy as possible, inside and out. From ways to help yourself on your own, to professional resources, read on for nine relatable tips from Dr. Thompson for making your mental health a priority this month and beyond.

On adapting to being at home after finals and/or graduation…

“While the 2020 academic year certainly didn’t end as we anticipated, you still deserve time to celebrate and bask in your academic success.  If you don’t yet have a schedule or plan, give yourself some fixed time (1-2 weeks) to sleep in, binge watch some TV and do whatever else feels restorative. Then create a daily plan to wake up and go to sleep at the same time, and have a daily schedule with preset times for exercise, getting outside, relaxation and several hours to commit to job searching or planning ‘what’s next’. While it is important to always give yourself time to decompress, especially after finals or graduation, our mood improves when we have structure and a schedule.”

On dealing with the feeling of uncertainty…

“Uncertainty can be so uncomfortable. Just like lifting a weight at the gym is uncomfortable but builds strength over time, the same is true for emotional strength. Tolerating uncertainty is an adaptive skill that can be learned, and in turn, makes life easier and more enjoyable. To do this, take time to consider and even visualize all the possibilities for what is next and open yourself up to the possibility that they may happen. 
For example, rather than taking on the mindset of “I’m going to be devastated if I still have class online,” think about all of the possible scenarios.  What would it feel like doing class over video calls next semester? What would 10-person class sizes feel like? What would it be like to return to class in person? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these? Imagining each possibility allows you to ‘try them on’ and be more prepared and comfortable when one of them happens.”

On how to face the anxieties of finances…

“Information is always empowering. It allows us to know more of what is and isn’t possible rather than just living in fear of the unknown.  Make a budget of your expenses to give you awareness of how much and where you spend so that you can make informed choices and feel less anxious. Break them down into either ‘Needs’ or ‘Wants’ so that you can consciously choose what you want to spend your money on.  If you’re concerned about your parents’ finances because they support you, it’s okay to ask them what their financial future looks like and how it might affect you.” 

On how to think about your career in the age of Covid-19…

“Work and career plans vary widely right now. Some are lucky enough to be enjoying job security and working from home without a commute or a need to wear pants. Others have lost their jobs even before starting. This can be devastating. It’s important and totally appropriate to grieve and allow yourself to feel the disappointment. In general, grieving losses in life is an important way to process events so that you can move through and beyond them.  But make a plan for what needs to happen next. Given the recession, it might make sense to broaden the scope of your original plan. Maybe other industries? Grad school? Starting your own business? In the meantime, you can take online courses to increase your skills and marketability for applying for that next job. This will keep your mind sharp, allow you to be building your resume and you just might discover something else that you love.” 

On communicating with your parents about their anxieties…

“Check-in with your parents if you’ve noticed they’re stressed.  Sometimes we write narratives in our heads that might not be true. ‘Mom is stressed about money, what if I can’t afford college next year…I’ll have to support myself, how am I going to do that?’ This catastrophizing in our heads can be dangerous, so check it out to see if it’s accurate. Launching a worry spiral can often be futile when she might say ‘Yes, I’m stressed about money, we’ll probably skip vacations this year, but we saved for your college, there’s no problem there.’ Keeping open communication with your parents is so important, because remember they’re only human, too, and you’re in this together.” 

On feeling more anxious than usual …

“It is perfectly normal to feel anxious and stressed right now! It is ok not to be ok. Anxiety or worry can sometimes be helpful and adaptive…if it directs us to problem solve. So if we’re worried about money, and we make a budget, great. If we worry in loops in the middle of the night, don’t sleep and don’t do anything productive…not so helpful. A measured degree of stress motivates us; we worry about failing a test, so we study. When anxiety and stress start to impair our functioning, that’s when we need to make changes to reduce it, and consider reaching out for help.” 

What resources do you recommend students to try during this time?

“There are many basic (though sometimes still hard!) behavioral changes that have been proven in research to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, such as regular exercise, getting 7-9 hours of sleep, and eating whole foods vs. processed foods. Meditation can also be very helpful, as can a gratitude journal.  Staying socially connected and still taking time for relaxation and fun are critically important. If the anxiety is still high, and disruptive, allocate some ‘worry time’ every day where you give yourself 20 minutes to just worry- it can be cathartic. If you’re dealing with insomnia, another helpful exercise is to write your worries down on a piece of paper before bed to ‘get them out’ of your system.”

On knowing when to reach out for professional help …

“If lifestyle changes aren’t helpful enough, seeing a therapist to process your emotions is always a great next step. Therapy is beneficial for anyone who is curious about themselves. As I tell my patients, it’s like dating- you just need a good fit! And this sometimes means trying a few therapists before you find a match. And finally, if the anxiety is severe or you really find your mood severely declining, see a psychiatrist to consider the options and educate yourself about medication. There are many online telehealth platforms and most local psychiatrists are now open and still taking new patients but seeing them over video, so reach out. And if you’re in California, I’m launching a telehealth company that will provide excellent, affordable psychiatric care over video, starting in June 2020.”

What are some ways to check in with yourself, reflect on your mental health, especially as we are all busy working or studying for finals?

“Be your own best friend and ask yourself what they would say to you right now. Would he or she say, “You need to rest!” If so, do it. Reach out to others – this is a difficult time for almost everyone, in different ways, so you are never alone. Vulnerability breeds connection and builds relationships, so use this as an opportunity to get support and simultaneously strengthen your relationships.”


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