Amid COVID-19 Stress and Winter Blues, Here’s How Students Can Feel Better
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Amid COVID-19 Stress and Winter Blues, Here’s How Students Can Feel Better

Distraught female student with her hand on her forehead

College students have always struggled with stress. But today, students say, stress, anxiety, and loneliness are their top concerns as they see their education and career plans delayed or ruined amid the global health pandemic and economic turmoil.

Those anxious feelings can grow even more intense amid the winter gloom.

But we are not defenseless. There are ways to recognize when stress is chronic and hurting us. There are tips for feeling better and getting help. I know this from my work as a marriage and family therapist, educator, and student advocate – and as someone who overcame battles with managing my own mental health (therapists are people too)!

So, I was thrilled to recently join Amelia Parnell, Ph.D., to talk about this timely and important topic on her popular podcast, “Speaking Of College.” I hope you will take a few minutes to listen. In the meantime, here are some highlights from our conversation.

Normal versus harmful stress

Perhaps the most important message is this: If you don’t manage your mental health, your mental health will manage you. As powerful as your mind is, it is pretty much a follower. You have the power to focus on thoughts that are positive and productive. Practicing mental discipline means you won’t have to constantly brace yourself for wild mood swings.

But no matter how well you protect your mental health, stress is inevitable. How do you know if what you’re feeling is worse than usual – chronic or harmful stress? Here are some signs:

  • Intrusive and persistent thoughts of hopelessness
  • Drastically changing appetite
  • Oversleeping or lack of sleep
  • Self-induced isolation
  • Thoughts of suicide. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help at 1-800-273-8255).

Tips for feeling better

No matter what you’re feeling, you are not alone. Here are some ways to feel better:

  • Seek help. We all need someone to talk to, especially as COVID-19 keeps us physically apart. Reach out to trusted mentors, relatives, and friends (yes, they may be struggling too, but they care about you!). Or seek a qualified therapist. Here are some tips on finding a therapist who will listen and provide some relief.
  • Get active and eat healthy. You’d be surprised how small changes can reap big rewards. Even 30 minutes a day of exercise (walking, dancing or jumping rope) works wonders. And try to limit comfort foods (such as cookies and sugary cereals) while adding more whole foods, fruits and vegetables to your diet. Remember to drink plenty of water.
  • Meditate or pray. We often feel overwhelmed because we can’t quiet our minds. Prayer or meditation are powerful tools that can help you find peace. If you’d like to try guided meditation, check out various YouTube videos or mindfulness apps.
  • Reverse-engineer your own happiness. As I mentioned, you have the power to direct your thoughts in ways that help lift the blues. Surround yourself with your favorite music, books and flowers. Take time for self-care. This recent PBS story tells how students are making changes in their lives to feel better and get back on track.

Keep a ‘self-care backpack’ handy

And here’s one more tip: keep a “self-care backpack” handy at all times. It should contain at least two essential items: first, a list of close family and friends who stand ready to listen and help. Second, a simple mission statement that reminds students why they are in school and what they want to achieve. You can jot it down on a notecard! During tough times, this reminder helps to inspire us.

We can’t control our chaotic world, but we can help ourselves – and seek help from others – to reduce stress and feel better. Together, we can build healthier, more fulfilling lives during our college years and beyond.

[Zainab Okolo, Ed.D., is a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, where she works to help all Americans succeed at learning and earning after high school. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, she is an expert and frequent speaker on student mental health.


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