We know the drill by now. Speaking to teachers with the distortion of poor connection. Hiding behind the barrier of a digital screen to catch up with friends and relatives. Passing strangers in the empty streets with our faces concealed by medical masks, muffling our voices further. Social distancing has never been easier. For many college students, this time is isolating, a harsh juxtaposition to the chaos of a school day and the consistency of a routine, one that kept the days from blending into one. On the other hand, students may be able to adapt to a new routine, recreating normalcy. With time, we can all learn how to make the situation work for us, even if it is like a real life Groundhog Day.
According to Mindy Miller, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, students will get along well when they believe the situation will quickly resolve itself. But if the situation continues, this could deteriorate.
“Most students, I’m finding, are more concerned about the ways that this virus is negatively impacting their lives on a more global scale,” Miller said. “They are changing the way that they were taking classes, and have been somewhat stressed out by that. For example, finishing clinicals as a nursing student by doing online scenarios is incredibly different than true patient care. This can be somewhat depressing. And the absence of a graduation is incredibly disappointing.”
She also acknowledges that many are forced to move back home with their parents, leading to further isolation.
“Online communities, Zoom meetings and other virtual hangouts are just not the same,” Miller said.
Rebecca Velasquez, theatre major at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, has been struggling with the loss of a consistent routine since her return home to St. Louis.
“I feel lost, like I have no idea what I’m doing,” Velasquez said. “I’m no longer in the classroom so it's harder to stay accountable for what I need to get done. Oftentimes, I find myself just wanting to lay in bed and not do anything.”
At age 12, Velasquez was diagnosed with generalized depression and anxiety disorder.
“My anxiety often causes me to procrastinate on getting things done,” Velasquez said. “I hate the lack of control. Everyday I had auditions all day and classes at night and it's my senior year so the virus also impacted the experience I was supposed to have.”
Regardless of the challenges she faces, she finds her motivation by confiding in others.
“My mom is really motivating and she keeps me going everyday,” Velasquez said. “I was seeing a therapist at school and she’s reached out to me to continue with Zoom sessions. I just get anxious with therapy because sometimes I have trouble getting all my thoughts out and I hate awkward pauses. But she was helping me with that too.”
According to Miller, an important way to combat higher levels of anxiety and depression is to have self compassion.
“People need to be able to acknowledge that this is a moment of collective suffering,” Miller said. “We need to choose to be kind to ourselves, especially in our self-talk. Our self-talk can be positive or negative, but many of us don’t even pay attention to the constant narration that goes on in our brains. When we take the time to examine our thoughts, we begin to take control of them.”
By regaining control of our thoughts, we can turn hopelessness into hopefulness, according to Miller.
“Sitting on Facebook and Instagram and thinking that other people are ‘quarantining more productively’ isn’t helpful,” Miller said. “This is a lot like the ‘fear of missing out’ and comparing our lives to others and finding that we come up lacking.”
Miller suggests learning a new skill like yoga or working on becoming fluent in a language.
“Mindfulness exercises are also great to help with anxiety and depression,” Miller said. “There are apps with guided meditations. Even coloring an adult coloring book can be an act of mindfulness. Find out what has worked for other people and see how you like them.”
This period of social distancing allows for more opportunities for self-care, according to Miller.
“I’m trying not to watch the news too much,” Velasquez said. “I’m taking breaks when I’m overwhelmed and I’m trying to watch what I eat and avoid over-snacking.”
Miller states that self-care is a preventative measure for diseases. A big part of this is avoiding ‘information overload.’
“Sitting and obsessively watching the news or reading articles for hours on end isn’t healthy,” Miller said. “We are listening to find out new information or hope for a story to help us feel better. Limit your exposure, especially if you suffer from anxiety.”
As stated by Miller, people with mild depression and anxiety disorders can fight these feelings off by staying busy. However, slowing down can cause things to bubble to the surface. It’s important to find a purpose to focus on.
“Students who can be the ones to go get the groceries are finding a role in the family that is valuable,” Miller said. “Being available to help elderly neighbors can be a great contribution to a neighborhood.”
Velasquez has tried to create a new schedule for herself, finding her purpose through her continued work as an aspiring actor.
“A lot of my classes don’t transfer as well to online but I’m making it work,” Velasquez said. “For my stage combat class, I have to learn a sword fight and practice it with myself. I don’t have a sword so I have to use the bottom of a paint roller.”
Despite the downfalls, Miller said some people are adjusting more quickly to social distancing than others.
“There are clients that I have been seeing that are actually seeming to function better at this time,” Miller said. “People who dislike the pressure to be made to socialize are enjoying not feeling like they have to conform to their extroverted friends. Also, people who have the perception that their life is much worse than others are sometimes feeling like the playing field is more level now.”
Miller said it’s crucial to have someone who can help keep those feelings of depression at bay.
“It is important to note that allowing our parents and grandparents to be a resource, more than purely financial, can be a wonderful part of moving back home,” Miller said. “People older than you have been through more hard situations in their lives. Listening to how they have gotten through these times can be really helpful. This can also be a fantastic opportunity to feel supported by our family, if we allow ourselves to lean on them.”