As we begin the spring semester, it’s difficult to believe we are approaching the one-year mark of practicing the protective measures of physical distancing, quarantine, and isolation. These are terms for which few of us had a reference point only a year ago, yet they have had a profound impact on our daily lives.
As we continue to face the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are simultaneously navigating complex sociopolitical stressors and continued tensions in the mounting fight for racial justice. These concurrent challenges affect each of us differently and often disproportionately based upon our intersectional identities. While this time in our lives and in history touches each of us in unique ways, the ongoing impact on our mental health is a challenge experienced by many. As we remain hopeful that better days are ahead, it’s important to recognize that it’s our shared commitment to intentionally caring for ourselves and one another that will be instrumental in getting us there.
Here are a few suggestions from the Counseling Center to consider as we keep moving forward together. We encourage you to explore what works for you and to engage in practices that are affirming and congruent with your beliefs and culture.
Create space to reflect on and process your emotions.
It’s normal to experience a variety of feelings, including anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, decreased motivation, and fatigue in response to chronic stress, loss, disconnection, and uncertainty. There are no “right” or “wrong” feelings. Labeling our feelings can help to legitimize and organize our experiences. Try to be as precise as possible. For example, if you identify feeling “stressed,” you might consider if you can determine more specific feelings such as fear, frustration, isolation, discouragement, exhaustion or disappointment. This can help us more accurately understand what we are feeling and help others to better understand our needs.
As you reflect on your feelings, give yourself permission to acknowledge and accept them without judgment. When we judge ourselves for feeling unmotivated, anxious or sad, we can increase distress by activating feelings of guilt and shame, when in fact, these are simply human responses that can help us better understand our needs. Judging our feelings only adds a second layer of suffering that impedes the process of working through difficult experiences. Accepting our uncomfortable feelings rather than avoiding or dismissing them is essential to tolerating distress and maintaining our mental health.
Remember, when it comes to regulating our emotions, “What we label, we disable” and “What we resist, persists.”
Focus on what you can control.
Identify what is in your control and what is not. While many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain outside our control, we can choose how we respond to the challenges we are facing. Making the best of a very difficult situation is about accepting it as it is and doing the best we can in response. How we cope with stress looks different for each of us, and it’s important not to compare ourselves to others. Strive to set realistic goals for yourself. When we achieve a personal goal, we feel good about ourselves. We tend to be most successful in maintaining our motivation when we sharpen our focus on what we can control and move forward one step at a time. It can be helpful to identify one small action you can take today.
When you find yourself stuck in the “what ifs,” gently shift your focus to “what is” and identify what steps you can take right now.
Prioritize time to recharge and practice self-care.
What we had hoped would be a sprint has become a marathon for which none of us could have adequately trained. Take time to slow down and adjust as needed. Deep breathing is not just a survival response but a way to intentionally care for ourselves. Remember to take care of your body by hydrating, consuming nourishing foods, engaging in physical activity, and obtaining restful sleep. Establishing consistent but flexible routines that add structure to our day can provide a sense of comfort and stability. It can help to engage in a screen-free ritual in the evening before bed to wind down from the stress of the day. Also consider spending time outdoors and connecting with nature when possible. It’s vital to schedule time to engage in activities that we enjoy. The current circumstances may require more creativity; however, regular engagement in pleasant activities is a highly effective way to enhance our mood.
Check in with yourself by asking questions like “What do I need at this moment?” and “How do I need to care for myself so that I can be there for others?”
Engage in practices that support your mental health.
Expressive writing can be a useful tool in helping to manage stressful experiences. For instance, identifying and writing about our core values not only boosts distress tolerance but mitigates the effects of stress on decision-making and behavior. Writing a few sentences about our core values reminds us what we truly care about and helps us to act in ways to support those values. If writing feels out of reach, you might consider using voice memos to complete this practice.
It can also help to reflect on what we feel grateful for each day. Gratitude offers perspective that helps us to savor good experiences, feel better about ourselves, and build stronger relationships. Gratitude practices can help us focus on the meaning and purpose in our lives to build resilience during difficult times.
Integrating daily mindfulness practices can provide significant mental health benefits. Mindfulness can enhance our ability to cope and improve our attention. Although difficult, challenge yourself to stay present. When you find yourself worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Notice the sights, sounds, tastes and other sensory experiences in the immediate moment and name them. Engaging in mindfulness is one way to help ground yourself when things begin to feel overwhelming.
Self-compassion is particularly important when navigating challenging times. Practicing self-compassion builds supportive relationships with ourselves and others as well as decreases feelings of isolation. People who practice self-compassion tend to experience greater satisfaction in their relationships and be more understanding of themselves and others during times of struggle.
Build and maintain supportive relationships.
One of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic has been the disruption and disconnection that many of us have experienced in our relationships and communities. As social beings, prolonged physical separation from our friends and family can significantly impact our emotional health and well-being. It’s important to remind ourselves that we are not alone in this experience. Turning to others for emotional support enhances coping as does providing support to those who are struggling. Invest in positive relationships that make you feel connected and seek professional support when needed. Talking to trusted others helps us to get through challenging times. Listening and being heard (even through a screen or with a mask) are powerful antidotes. When we prioritize connection we can build a community in which we can lean on each other for support and take comfort in our experience of common humanity.
Ultimately, supportive relationships and feeling a sense of belonging are the cornerstones of emotional health and well-being. Take time to check in with yourself and to connect with someone you care about today. As a community, we can’t underestimate the power that we each have to impart hope and build the connections that will help to illuminate the path forward. Responding to ourselves and others with compassion, joining with one another to make meaning of our experiences, and working collaboratively to move forward together can help us get through even the most difficult times.
If you or someone you know could benefit from additional mental health support, please consider the resources below:
For faculty and staff