How Self-Care Can Help Manage Stress and Anxiety in the Time of COVID-19

By: Jonathan Block

Understandably, students may be feeling elevated levels of stress, anxiety, or even depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic upending many parts of our daily lives. If you are a student who is finding it hard to deal with a range of emotions during these difficult times, know that you are not alone. The important thing is to not let negative emotions take over, or else they can lead to more serious problems.

Luckily, the CUNY School of Public Health has a great resource with Sherry Adams, LCSW, as student wellness counselor. She has a dozen years of experience and is available for individual counseling if needed. (Her email is Adams recently held the first of three sessions in her online workshop series, Remaining Resilient During the Coronavirus Pandemic, focusing on self-care.

“Any level of self-care that we can increase can mitigate some of the negative consequences of the challenges we are dealing with related to COVID-19,” says Adams. “We are encouraging you, to the best of your ability, to take as much time as possible to tend to yourself. Because tending to yourself is something that will improve community health.”

Simply put, self-care is the practice of doing the things we need to do to maintain our happiness and our health, including mental health. However, many people find that there are barriers to practicing good self-care. Adams says this can be the result of prioritizing the needs of others too often; overextending ourselves; taking work home with us; engaging in risky behaviors such as excessive drinking or doing drugs that may have short-term payoffs but long-term consequences; and procrastinating on self-care. Despite these barriers, self-care “is necessary to preserve ourselves.”

Adams notes that as opposed to unhealthy coping behaviors, which tend to be easy and produce short-term effects, practicing self-care works best when it’s done consistently and can have lasting results. And while not engaging in self-care can often make people feel guilty, when the gap is bridged between what we say we want and what we’re actually doing, we tend to be able to reach our goals and feel better about ourselves. Smith advises, “it’s easier to make something a habit when it’s scheduled – to weave it into a routine in your day.”

Some people mistakenly believe that focusing on self-care makes someone selfish, but that assumption is false. Adams says that self-care promotes better relationships, makes us better caregivers, makes us more effective professionals and serves as a model for other family members and our children. “When we do self-care, we are able to communicate better, do more than we would have had we been neglecting ourselves, and we have a mental capacity that is stronger and broader when we’ve actually done things to clear our minds.”

So, how can we embrace self-care in our daily lives? It depends on the situation. Adams outlines several areas of self-care: professional, emotional, psychological, physical, and social.

With professional self-care, understand that it is OK to get support with challenging tasks. And if you find you need to take some mental health time off from work, that’s an acceptable use of sick time, according to Adams. “If you need time to sleep or think about something other than work or your other needs for a day or two, that is completely valid and will likely put you in a position where you are a better professional when you get back to work.”

It’s important to acknowledge your emotions rather than trying to override them as that can cause them to stick around longer. You can choose where and when it is safe to do so. And try not to be judgmental about your emotions either. It’s also not helpful to compare what you may be going through with other people’s emotions.  If you say “I’m not as bad off as someone in the hospital or someone who is struggling to survive. At the same time, there is enough room to feel what you’re feeling,” Adams says. “Your pain does not diminish because other people are in a different kind of pain or are experiencing more challenges than you are. Your emotions are valid.” But if your emotions are too much to deal with, it’s a good idea to seek counseling.

It’s important to engage in activities that give your brain a break from the crisis. This could mean playing games you like that will keep your brain stimulated or engaging in activities that make you laugh. Adams notes that laughing releases “feel-good” chemicals in the brain called endorphins, which can calm the body’s physiological stress response. It’s also important to determine what amount of news consumption is healthy for you, which varies by individual. While it’s important to be informed, it’s also important to preserve your psychological health.

Physically, it’s important to get regular exercise. What type is up to you but pick one you are most likely and motivated to do. Some people turn to food for solace, but it’s important not to turn to junk food for relief as the benefit will be short-term. Instead, go for foods that are healthy and will make you feel good by the end of the day. If you find yourself feeling unwell, don’t ignore what your body is trying to tell you – see a doctor. And avoid risky or destructive behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, or ignoring public health guidelines.

Identify what spirituality means to you and engage in activities that nourish that part of you. Adams says that spirituality also means being comfortable sitting with your thoughts, even when many of them nowadays can be difficult. While it may be easy to distract ourselves by reaching for things such as our phones, that just puts uncomfortable thoughts on hold.

“I think the more that we can sit with, acknowledge and tolerate some of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings related to this pandemic, the easier it will be to move beyond them when we can. It doesn’t mean the thoughts and the feelings are going to completely disappear. It means we are working with the reality of how we feel.”

Sherry Adams will hold additional workshops on stress management on May 26 and tending to grief on May 26. You can register for the workshops here.