by Patricia Weldon, MSW, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work
Under “normal” (pre-COVID-19) circumstances, now would be a stressful time for most students – taking leave of one’s classmates, moving off campus, getting ready for summer jobs. This time around, we’re having to deal with a lot more than usual: missing our friends, not going through the normal end-of-year process (including graduation, for some), being unable to meet with advisors to figure out what to do next semester, feeling uncertain about employment. Plus, we’re sequestered with parents, siblings, roommates, partners, children – it all piles on.
What can we do?
We use our coping skills. These are not complicated. They’re things that we do to manage our emotions, positive and negative: stress, anxiety, fear, joy, anger, and everything else. They can include:
- Stopping and taking a breath
- Taking a walk (safely), either out in nature or around the neighborhood
- Little things we do every day to help us focus, like doodling
- Talking with friends
What physically and mentally healthy things have worked in the past? Helping us manage our emotions physically without doing damage to us in other ways, these include meditation, yoga, exercise, talking with friends, listening to music or taking a nap. Some people enjoy journaling as a way to process their emotions (others see it as an additional, stressful task).
What worked during particularly tough times? Did we go through a divorce or a death in the family, for instance? Are there people we reached out to who were helpful and supportive (as opposed to someone who just told us to “suck it up and get over it”)?
When we are stressed, we typically rely on techniques that we have used in the past, whether they be healthy or unhealthy. Sometimes we have to take a step back and explore if we can find other ways to mange our stress in ways that are helpful and healthy for us.
We watch out for things that may reduce stress but can be unhealthy. Turning to alcohol or drugs is an obvious one, but there are others, such as shutting down emotionally, isolating oneself from family and friends, and even things like nail biting (even overhydrating or exercising too much can be unhealthy).
But we don’t have to eliminate every unhealthy coping mechanism. A little too much coffee (or ice cream, chocolate, or TV)? These things can be OK in moderation, or balanced with some of the healthier coping skills. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for having that candy bar, but maybe be sure we’re also connecting with loved ones or taking a walk.
Some warning signs of misuse:
- Frequency – how many days a week or times per day are we using them?
- Amount – did we go from a couple of drinks at a bar once a week to four or five at home?
- Patterns – did we go from drinking only with friends to buying a six-pack on the way home and drinking it alone in one evening?
If use of a substance appears to be turning into a problem, it may be time to reach out to a professional for outside help.
Some warning signs of stress:
- Shifts in functioning, such as interacting less, or differently, with people, less interest in typical activities (e.g. reading, music, crafts)
- Self isolation, talking less, or showing less interest in what’s going on with family and friends
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Physical symptoms, like tension in the shoulders, headaches, digestive upsets?
For extra support and guidance, therapists are available at our Counseling Center.
Getting along with our cohabitants
Living in close quarters with others can add stressful (the warmer weather may give us more options, even if it’s just going out in the back yard to study). For young adults, being back home with parents and siblings can cause old family patterns to rear their familiar heads: who does the dishes, who makes dinner, whether we made our bed.
Talk about everyone’s ways of coping. We all have different styles that may conflict or be compatible with others’. It’s OK to have a conversation like, “You know, in order to get my classwork done or have some time to think, I need some alone time, so I’m going to hang out in my room between 8 and 9, and would appreciate having some space.”
Or, “I would love to have a time to sit down together. Can we have a time when we all talk about what happened today?” If you have family members who are essential workers, how are you managing the stress of worrying about your parent, sibling, or partner who’s out there as a healthcare worker, store clerk, or first responder?
Figure out routines. Can we balance everyone’s schedule so that each person can do what they have to? If one person has a Zoom call at 2, it’s OK to ask others not to have their video time then because of noise and bandwidth issues.
We can negotiate with one another. It’s not being mean – it’s allowing everyone to meet their requirements.
Dealing with uncertainty
None of us is used to living this way. The unfortunate reality is that there will continue to be a lot of uncertainty for a while, and this adds stress to our normal load. But how do we manage the stress and keep it at a manageable level?
We can use our coping skills. We can reach out to people, turn off the TV or computer, and disconnect from the news for a while.
If we’re unsure whether our usual summer landscaping or camp-counselor job will be available, are there other things we could do, like helping with projects around the house, or taking a summer class? There are opportunities to volunteer virtually, like reading children’s books to kids in the hospital. And remember that, when businesses start ramping back up, there will be a lot of need out there because so many people are affected financially.
Stress: a normal part of life
Under ordinary circumstances, stress can even be a motivating factor. Stress about work, school, or relationships can motivate us to do a better job, study harder, or improve our relationships. Stress can actually be helpful as long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. We can’t eliminate it completely, but we can find ways to manage it.
We should celebrate having managed it, too. In our society, we’re not supposed to pat ourselves on the back, but sometimes we should. Nobody knows how stressed we are, or how hard something was, so we should take a step back and say, “Hey, I was really nervous about that presentation, but I did a good job.”
We can also tell someone, “I was really stressed, but I did OK in my job interview.”
We can give ourselves a reward, like getting takeout from a new place or buying ourselves something nice. Once again, it depends on what works for each of us.
Patricia Weldon, M.S.W., Ph.D. is an assistant professor of social work at Saint Rose, and an experienced licensed clinical social worker. She has worked in many different clinical settings, including outpatient mental health, crisis-intervention services, organization-critical incident response, employee-assistance programs, and managed-care organizations. In addition to her position at Saint Rose, Dr. Weldon continues to work with a national organization providing consultation services, support, and referrals to employees at companies who have experienced a traumatic or disruptive event.