Although it is often overlooked, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens not only our physical health, but our mental well-being as well. Safety measures like social distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation protect the physical health of our communities, but can often harm our mental health in the process. Isolation and the stressors accompanying the pandemic often exacerbate anxiety and depression; they can also be draining for neurotypical people. An individual can be doing everything right to take care of their mental health and still end up needing more help.
This is certainly the case for students and young adults, two overlapping groups hit hard by the changes brought on by COVID-19. Dr. Kimberly Quinn, a professor in the Psychology program at Champlain College, found mental health was declining in the student body even at the start of the pandemic. “My students were very outspoken about it,” she said. “For those who struggle with anxiety and depression, it got worse for sure. At least a few openly discussed substance abuse. When they were sent home to live with their parents, many students got worse. Support helps, but you can be doing everything right and still be affected.” Dr. Quinn is an expert in mental health strategies like mindfulness, which she believes can help those struggling in quarantine or with the pandemic in general. She teaches courses in Positive Psychology, “Mindcraft,” and Cognitive Psychology in addition to serving as the Well-being & Success Coach at Champlain.
Dr. Quinn thinks a main issue for students was the loss of freedom imposed by the pandemic. “Students experienced a lot of loss and grief with the restrictions they faced, along with the uncertainty that came with them,” she said. “Over spring break, they kept thinking we might go back [to campus], but obviously they couldn’t return. For those with anxiety and depression, the uncertainty was huge.”
As a professor, Dr. Quinn had her own struggles with the pandemic. “It was hard, but I embraced the technology I don’t normally like,” she admitted. As a mother, Dr. Quinn also had to come to grips with having her five young adult children suddenly back at home. “I experienced firsthand the other side of going home—being the mom,” she said. “I had to create structure for my kids, but at the same time everyone is in the living room trying to work remotely, and I felt overstimulated, too.”
Still, her experience wasn’t all negative. “I tried to be creative and have fun with the kids. A podcast called Mindcraft I’ve been doing since March came out of “the ‘rona,” and it was my daughter’s idea,” Dr. Quinn said. “I started it to support my students and the Champlain community, and it became very popular.”
With the fall semester upon us, it’s important to continue supporting students who are struggling with their mental health. With the help of Dr. Quinn, we came up with ten tips to maintain the well-being of those in quarantine and others who might be struggling with the pandemic in general.
1. Get Dressed Every Morning.
When you’re stuck at home, it can be easy to fall into a routine of staying in your pajamas all day, every day. While this may be a comfortable option, it isn’t conducive to mental health. Instead of lounging around in your pajamas, get dressed every morning as if you’re getting ready to go somewhere. By adding structure to your morning routine, you’ll avoid getting into a funk for the rest of the day.
2. Start Off the Day With One Resilience Affirmation.
Dr. Quinn recommends starting off the day with resilience affirmations that build off of these three statements: ”I have ___, I can ___, I am ___.” Students fill in the blanks with something positive and truthful. An example could be: “I have a good work ethic. I can be happy today. I am a strong person.” With daily repetition, these affirmations can help students begin each morning on a positive note that carries through the day.
3. Practice Gratitude.
According to Dr. Quinn, “gratitude practice is huge.” She recommends keeping a gratitude journal, but making it simple. Every day, write down three things you’re grateful for. Although the entry doesn’t have to be a full sentence, it does have to start with “I am grateful” in order for the brain to reap the full benefit of the repetition.
Dr. Quinn also recommends placing your journal in a spot where you will see it so you don’t miss any entries.
4. Be Present.
Live in the present moment as much as possible. The present is the only place in time where anxiety can’t reside, so focus on what you’re doing now instead of allowing yourself to think anxious thoughts. Because thoughts come first and feelings follow, thinking anxious thoughts allows us to feel anxious. Although being the boss of your brain is difficult, we have to correct our brain’s “chatter” and put in the effort to think positively. Over time and repetition, habits will change for the better.
5. Say Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow.
When the brain starts to chatter, we need to say to ourselves, “Not today, maybe tomorrow.” The human brain likes setting “appointments” for anxiety and negative thoughts, so giving it a specific time to do so in the future—and then continuing to push off the appointment—will condition it to stop chattering in the moment.
Although you should expect a “brain tantrum” the first few times you use this strategy, you need to remain firm and continue to repeat the process whenever negative thoughts arise. If you make it a priority to practice thought control, your brain’s chatter is likely to begin to ease as you improve.
6. Lower the Bar.
It is important to strive for progress, not perfection, in our daily lives. This is especially true when it comes to mental health. Instead of being disappointed in yourself for shortcomings in your daily mental health journey, lower the bar. If you have a successful moment, give yourself credit for it. Every little success is a big success, and you should acknowledge it in order to continue to improve each day.
7. Limit Social Media Use, But Not Human Connection.
Dr. Quinn thinks “it would be good for students to realize how important connection is,” but she suggests limiting social media use to a healthy level. It’s hard to see friends and family in person, and social media can be a great tool to stay connected. That being said, Dr. Quinn recommends planning our social media time to provide structure to the habit. Otherwise, the social comparisons inherent in the platforms can set us on a road to unhappiness. Alternatives like video chatting or phone calls are perfect ways to stay connected without overusing social media.
8. Create an End-Of-Day Ritual.
Much like your morning ritual of getting dressed, your routine at the end of the day should signal to your brain something has changed. Instead of waking your brain up, you should be showing it the day is ending. Actions like eating dinner at the same time every day, reading a book or listening to a podcast before bedtime, or having a nightly face care regimen can all signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down. By keeping a more regimented schedule, one day will not blend into the next.
9. Embrace One Simple Pleasure Every Day.
Every day, do something “that makes your heart sing” and commit to it. It shouldn’t be something time consuming or mundane, but it should make you happy, even in a small way. Examples of this could include eating your favorite meal, taking a relaxing bath, getting outdoors and taking a walk to a special place.
10. Practice One Conscious Act of Kindness Every Day.
Although options are limited because of social distancing and quarantine, it is still possible to help others every day. By purposefully selecting one kind act to do every day, our brains are flooded with dopamine, the happy hormone. Actions like weeding a neighbor’s garden, donating supplies to someone in need, or calling a lonely friend can have a positive impact on everyone involved.
It is also important for students to seek more help when it is necessary. At Champlain College, counseling is available for students on campus through the Counseling Center, and telehealth is offered to those who reside in Vermont. Dr. Quinn also offers “Let’s Chat” sessions for students in Vermont. The fifteen minute well-being talks allow students to speak about strategies to deal with the challenges they are experiencing in a comfortable environment. If students are ever experiencing a mental health crisis and need to talk to someone immediately, they can call the on-call counselor at 802.865.5745 or Campus Public Safety at 802.865.6465.
This semester, Dr. Quinn will also be hosting the Defense Against the Dark Arts club on Thursdays at 7:00 PM in the IDX Dining Hall. All students are welcome to attend and discuss topics like anxiety, relationships, and more.
Dr. Quinn also runs a virtual well-being workshop called Mind Magic for Well-Being every Wednesday from 4:00–4:30 PM. Themed events include topics that anyone can fit into any stage of their lives. The workshop is accompanied by Mindful Wednesday newsletters dealing with similar ideas and strategies. Students can sign up for all of these sessions through the Counseling Center pages.
For more information on how Champlain College plans to support students coming back to campus, read How Champlain is Planning to Reopen Campus Safely.
Are you a first year worried about mental health issues? Check out Your First year: Paying Attention to Your Mental Health.