UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As students begin a new semester, experts share steps individuals can take to support their emotional and mental well-being — from cutting down on screen time to increasing positive interactions with friends and family. In addition, Penn State offers a variety of mental health resources and online self-help tools for those who need support in managing stress and anxiety throughout the semester.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs of stress during an infectious disease outbreak like the coronavirus pandemic include fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and worsening of chronic health problems, among other symptoms.
James Dillard, distinguished professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State who researches how people experience and manage fear of infectious diseases, said that “while feeling unsure or even fearful in uncertain times is normal, there are also strategies you can use to help regulate your emotions.”
As the semester begins, according to Dillard, prioritizing mental health, taking breaks from the news and social media, staying physically active, and continuing to engage in activities you enjoy are strategies students can practice to help manage stress and boost their well-being.
Look after your mental health
Ben Locke, senior director for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Penn State, said college students across the country have experienced emotional, social, career and academic losses in the past several months and continue to experience insecurity or doubt in their lives.
“Many students are struggling with uncertainty about next steps, how unknown events will continue to affect them, and what to do when these things happen,” Locke said.
He noted that it is important to acknowledge that anxiety is a normal human experience, and in many cases can be managed by keeping a regular routine, maintaining a set sleep schedule, limiting unstructured social media and screen time, and focusing energy on areas that they are capable of changing.
“Anxiety is your body’s way of communicating with you that something worrisome is happening and that you should pay attention,” he said. “While not all experiences of anxiety or stress require professional help, I encourage students who are experiencing anxiety to give yourself a little bit of time to see how things change. If you find that you’re not making progress and continue to feel anxious, nervous or upset on a regular basis -- that is when you should reach out for help.”
Any student who is experiencing difficulties or questioning if they need help or would benefit from counseling is encouraged to call Penn State CAPS. To get support:
- University Park students can call CAPS at 814-863-0395 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
- Students at Commonwealth Campuses can contact the CAPS office at their campus location.
- When CAPS is closed, both the Penn State Crisis Line (1-877-229-6400) and the Crisis Text Line (text “LIONS” to 741741) are available 24/7 for students at all campuses who are in crisis or need support.
Students at all Penn State campuses also are encouraged to use the following virtual wellness services:
- You@PSU: You@PSU is an online wellness portal for students that invites them to answer a handful of questions to understand how they’re doing in three different areas, including academics/career, mental health, and sense of belonging or meaning. The portal offers content related to COVID-19 topics such as working and learning remotely, managing fears and anxieties, and staying connected while physically distanced. The tool also gives students personalized results to see which Penn State resources could best serve their needs, as well as access to a variety of curated online mental health tips and resources.
- WellTrack: WellTrack is an interactive self-therapy app that allows students to evaluate themselves for symptoms of anxiety or depression. Students are given the flexibility of having a self-guided treatment for 5 to 6 weeks that can be completed from home without interacting with a counselor.
- Thriving Campus: Thriving Campus is an online directory that can help students find a mental health provider in their community. The site provides a list of off-campus, licensed mental health clinicians, many of whom specialize in working with students, and resources and tips for securing care.
- Red Folder: The Red Folder initiative is a guide to help faculty, staff and others who interact with Penn State students to recognize, respond effectively to, and refer distressed students to appropriate resources. It also provides a list of resources for each campus that are grouped by different categories including emergency and urgent resources.
Take breaks from watching news stories and social media
“We know that people experience stronger fear responses as a function of the frequency of disease-related media exposure and disease-related interpersonal communication,” Dillard said. “That would seem to suggest that we could just advise people to limit all of their disease-related communication activities, but things are not that simple.”
Individuals should gauge the impact the news related to the pandemic has on them while being mindful of factors such as how important it is for them to be up to date on the latest COVID-related research, and adjust their media intake and interpersonal communication on that basis, according to Dillard.
“This isn’t everybody, but some percentage of our population needs to pay careful thought to the amount of media exposure they consume,” he said.
Some suggestions Dillard has to mitigate media consumption include watching less, avoiding COVID-related notifications that disrupt other activities, choosing print-type media, and engaging with news channels that use credible sources and are scanned for bias.
Dillard also says that interpersonal communication with family and friends can serve as a source of social support and advice, but in some cases can amplify or trigger negative emotions if they are feeling strong emotions themselves. For some, this may mean staying in closer contact with some people over others.
Take care of your body and relax with activities you enjoy
The CDC has advised people to continue to exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, eat well-balanced and healthy meals at regular intervals, as well as avoid consumption of alcohol and drugs.
To support these practices, Penn State students are encouraged to use the following resources:
- Health and Wellness Guide during COVID-19 and Wellness Services
- Healthy Penn State blog featuring nutritious recipes and fitness, stress reducers, mindfulness and sleep tips
- Health Promotion and Wellness Programs, which offer free wellness sessions on topics such as stress, sleep, nutrition, fitness, and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
- Stress management resources and offerings, including workshops, stress management workbook, downloadable coloring pages, and more
- Fitness classes, including options offered virtually
“It is important to be honest with yourself and others in your life about what you’re going through, what your needs are, and how you’re struggling rather than trying to shut those feelings down,” said Locke. “As we continue to live through these uncertain times, it is so important to make space and time in your life to stay connected to your friends and family, hobbies and interests that are important to you, and your connection to a bigger purpose in the world.”
For additional tips and information on managing stress and anxiety, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. To learn more about Penn State’s response to the ongoing coronavirus situation, including resources and FAQs for students, visit psu.edu/virusinfo.