Coping with stress
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Roberta Moloff and iStock, January 08, 2021
With a pandemic and unrest, anxiety is soaring — UD experts have answers
Few would argue: The college experience is a fleeting and formative period to be cherished long after one outgrows Ramen Noodles and that dorm-ubiquitous John Belushi poster.
College is such an important, fun and singular experience that it is easy to forget it can also be really — like, really — stressful. Not listed on any syllabus? All-nighters spent deciphering formulas and citing sources. Navigating fraught roommate relationships and shoestring budgets. Learning to thrive in a university ecosystem while simultaneously preparing for life outside the bubble.
Throw in the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — a novel disease that continues wreaking personal and economic havoc worldwide — and all that undergraduate stress balloons like solid matter undergoing thermal expansion. (Thank you, chemistry 101.)
The reality is, “human bodies are not designed for this type of chronic stress,” said Jeffrey Spielberg, an assistant professor of clinical science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware. He is also Director of UD’s Connectomics of Anxiety and Depression Lab.
Turns out, human bodies are more designed for quick bursts of stress, like the kind caveman and cavewoman ancestors experienced running from saber-toothed tigers. Back then, the fight-or-flight response came in handy regularly. Helped by a rush of the hormone cortisol, bodily systems not needed for a quick and alert getaway — like digestion — temporarily shut down so that energy could be redirected elsewhere, like pumping blood and oxygen to the muscles.
Unfortunately, the human body is not great at distinguishing between this type of running-for-your-life scenario and other, daily stressors — like battling traffic, rushing to meet a deadline or — yes — navigating the constant threat of a virus. This means people, including your average college students, are experiencing a constant flood of the cortisol hormone. And too much of a good thing? It becomes toxic.
“It used to be that if you kept getting attacked by some animal, you either escaped it or you were probably eaten,” Spielberg said. “But these days, there is no escape.”
Over time, this overflow of cortisol can lead to a number of negative physiological effects, including panic attacks, weight gain, even brain cell death. Research also indicates those with higher levels of cortisol are more likely to experience general cognitive blurriness — aka brain fog.
If this sounds terrifying, try not to fret. Before you start stressing over your stress level, Spielberg said to consider this: Not all worry is bad worry. After all, it would be odd and a bit dangerous if college students were not feeling at least a bit more on-alert these days.
“There is obviously some evolutionary benefit to worry,” Spielberg said. “It serves a purpose — it is adaptive and reasonable — if it spurs you to action.”
If worrying over grades gets a student to prepare for exams, great. If worrying over a pandemic prompts that same person to wear a face mask and heed proper safety precautions, even greater. Problems arise when all positive behavior modifications have been made, and the fretting persists. If the worry becomes pathological — hijacking a person’s thoughts to the point of distraction — that is a different story. It is one thing to worry about (and therefore avoid) close proximity to unmasked passersby while outside, for example, but if you are still fixating on these individuals once back in the safety of your own home, that is a good indication a stress response is in hyperdrive. Another sign? Obsessively combing through the web for latest bad news.
Increasingly, Spielberg said, people who may have been able to control their worry in the past are being “pushed over the edge” by the pandemic. And, unfortunately, college students are particularly susceptible to these tendencies, since certain parts of the brain that aid in this control are still developing into the 30s.
On the flip side, a still-developing brain is also going to be more amenable to stress-coping strategies.
Kelsey Chambers, staff psychologist with UD’s Center for Counseling and Student Development (CCSD), has been doling out these strategies to Blue Hens looking to safeguard their mental wellbeing. Beyond advocating the basics of good sleep and nutrition — which become even more paramount during a pandemic — one of her suggestions involves focusing, as much as possible, on the present moment. This is the theory behind mindfulness training — your brain cannot be hijacked by thoughts of what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future if you are mentally present in the now.
Easier said than done.
To achieve a mindful state, Chambers recommends a grounding exercise called the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique, which dictates calling upon all five senses: In high-anxiety moments, identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. (It is okay to adjust for accessibility.) Or simply make an effort to spend a few minutes every day taking intentionally deep, slow, grounding breaths — “one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves,” Chambers said.
Sophomore Olivia Chowdhury is a member of the Active Minds student organization at UD, which works to normalize the conversation surrounding mental health on campus and beyond. She achieves mindfulness via a running routine in her Atlantic City neighborhood and, occasionally, with the help of adult coloring books. Engaging with other Blue Hens in the Active Minds organization via a GroupMe app during the pandemic has also introduced her to additional stress-coping mechanisms.
“Different students offer different tips,” Chowdhury said. “Some prefer meditation sessions; others de-stress with yoga or journaling or crafting. I’ve learned about weighted blankets this way, and I’ve found they’re very helpful — it feels like getting a big hug. Not everything is going to work for every person; the important thing is to find the technique that is a fit for you.”
For some Blue Hens, de-stressing has come in the form of service to others.
Take Alison Lobo, a neuroscience and Spanish major. A senior whose last year of college was hijacked by the pandemic, she could easily have spent the last few months in a funk of self-pity. Instead, she has leaned into service work with the HENS student organization at UD, which collaborates with the Honors program to provide volunteer opportunities within the local community. As part of an annual HENS day of service, Lobo spent a portion of a recent weekend picking up trash in her Claymont neighborhood and writing letters to lonely senior citizens through the Love for our Elders organization.
"You can feel a little defeated when you think about missed-out time with friends or the loss of in-person classes in the fall,” she said. “Something like this can broaden your perspective and reinforce how lucky you have it.”
As a self-care strategy, service is psychologist-approved.
“It can be really helpful to channel our energy, especially at a time when we might be feeling helpless, into something that feels personally meaningful and fulfilling,” Chambers said.
But, she is quick to add, it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself. If you end up struggling to eat well or practice yoga or channel your anxiety into volunteer work during a stressful moment, go easy on yourself.
“Self-compassion is especially important right now,” Chambers said. “This entails withholding judgement and treating yourself with kindness, the way you would treat a friend or a loved one. And it means recognizing that failure and mistakes and setbacks are a part of the human condition, and we all experience those from time to time.”
Of course, even if you do everything right, even if you complete all of the self-care strategies in the world, it is still possible to struggle with mental health. If you notice a significant change to normal behavior — altered sleeping or eating patterns, say, or a severe drop in activity or motivation — consider reaching out to CCSD or another expert resource.
“Seeking professional help does not mean that you are — quote-unquote — crazy, or that you have a severe illness,” Chambers said. “It is a way to honor and prioritize your wellness.”
Resources for support
The UD Division of Student Life’s Wellbeing website provides information on services and support, including a Coping with COVID-19 Support Group. Personalized telehealth support is also available to members of the UD community. The Center for Counseling and Student Development is open and available remotely, and 24/7 mental health support remains available on the UD Helpline at 302-831-1001 for any student in need of someone to talk to.