Counselors Suggest Strategies for Pandemic Stress

By: Merry Castle

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everyday life in America. For college students, this causes increased feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress. Carrie Dashner, the Director of Counseling Services at Spring Arbor University (SAU), and Cecilia Said, the Masters of Arts and Counseling (MAC) intern, have some advice to help students cope with the anxiety of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has had a major impact on mental health globally with a rise in depression and suicide,” said Dashner. “Here at SAU, we are seeing a higher number of students who are experiencing anxiety and depression related to COVID-19.”

Dashner and her team have noticed a trend. “We have noted a decline in the negative stigma toward counseling services, as evidence by an increase in the number of students seeking counseling,” Dashner said. “More students are making it known to their friends that they have sought our counseling services.”

Dashner said students are experiencing grief, loss, loneliness, and fear. “Our freshman students are missing out on typical activities that help encourage friendships, such as Cedar Bend experience, traditional activities at SAU, such as Arbor Games, the Chapel experience, Spiritual Life Retreat,” said Dashner.

Seniors are also experiencing losses. “They are losing their senior year experiences; some are missing their CCS trips, traditional activities they have engaged in over their years here at SAU, and graduation.”

Students are experiencing fears that often develop or result in anxiety. “Students are experiencing fear of testing positive for COVID-19, having to go into isolation, causing others to quarantine because of them, and missing out on activities, athletic events if in quarantine,” said Dashner. She said there is an added fear of passing COVID-19 to fragile family members or transitioning to online classes when they do not learn well online.

Dashner said many students are feeling lonely and isolated from friends and typical student interactions. “Not being able to hug or be close to friends is taking a toll on many students and their feeling of connectedness,” said Dashner. “Having to wear masks and just missing the facial expressions and smiles of others can feel lonely and create distance from others.” 

Dashner has some tricks and tips when it comes to coping with anxiety brought about by COVID-19. She said a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and daily exercise are key to managing anxiety, stress, and depression. Other management strategies include:

  • Stay Organized:  Use a planner to organize your day or make lists to prioritize what needs to be accomplished. 
  • De-clutter your space:  Many students are spending most of their time in their rooms.  Organize your space and create fewer distractions. 
  • Find humor in each day.  Incorporate laughter into your day, google some jokes or funny memes
  • Take breaks during the day:  Listen to music or a podcast or a short show, color, do a craft, write a letter, read a book, take a walk, shoot some hoops. Find what helps you relax.
  • Engage in breathing exercises.  Breathe in slowly to the count of four and then exhale slowly to the count of four.  Repeat this several times.  There are also many Apps for breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Grounding techniques:  Use your five senses to focus on what is present and diminish anxiety.  Focus on what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
  • Partake in spiritual practices:  Meditate, pray, read scripture, listen to a sermon online or worship music, or speak to a spiritual mentor to receive peace from the Lord.
  • Journaling:  Use a journal to write out your feelings and emotions.
  • Gratitude journal:  Write out things that you are thankful for or that the Lord has blessed you with.
  • Reaching out to others:  Connect with others at least once daily through FaceTime, Skype, text, or phone call to seek and provide support.
  • Helping others:  Take the focus off yourself and do something thoughtful for someone else.  Text a friend or family member, send a note, set up a social distancing coffee or lunch date.

Dashner and Said know spending time away from friends and family can be difficult. Said said, “Setting up FaceTime’s, House Parties, phone calls, text threads, Zoom meetings can help students feel connected to others even when they must be apart.” Dashner said, “Watch online church and chapel services together, have Zoom study groups, board game nights, or movie nights to help connect with other students.”

Students can also send letters, notes, or cards to friends and family members. “This can be helpful at this time,” said Dashner. “It gives the receiver something tangible.”

“There is a feeling or assumption that we will never get to be close to our loved ones ever again, but we need to have a positive mindset about this pandemic,” said Said. “We need to adjust our thinking in order to see that, eventually, we will be able to move forward and be with our loved ones as we once were.”

Dashner wants students to know there are opportunities available for them. “Many students sought help from counselors in their hometowns during the initial quarantine and have continued meeting with their counselors via teletherapy while on campus,” said Dashner. “For students who don’t have that support, we do offer counseling services through Holton Health and Wellness.”

“Counseling is confidential and free of charge for traditional undergraduate students,” said Dashner. Students can make an appointment by emailing carrie.dashner@arbor.edu.

Another opportunity available to students is Conversations with the Counselors. This event is hosted via WebEx twice a month on Wednesdays from 10-11 am. “This time of conversation is where on-campus students can come to learn about a specific topic related to mental health,” said Dashner. “This group is psychoeducational, which means that the purpose of it is for learning about these topics in order to more deeply understand them.”

Dashner said, “We are blessed to be on campus and in person.”

“By being able to be in community with each other right now, even if things are different, there is a social component that brings us happiness,” said Said. “Not many college students are getting to do this.”

Dashner understands that this is an unprecedented and stressful time, but she urges students to remember their faith. “Realizing that God is still in control amid all this uncertainty and fear allows us to have a more positive mindset and outlook on things,” said Dashner.

“Don’t be afraid to share with a trusted friend or family member that you are feeling depressed or anxious,” said Dashner. “Telling someone is the first step towards healing, and often, others are experiencing similar things, and it can be nice to share those feelings with others.” If you need additional assistance or counseling services, email carrie.dashner@arbor.edu.