How to deal with stress and anxiety during the pandemic

Dr. Piassick

There is a lot of uncertainty in the world today with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting many facets of daily life. For Mercer students, that means moving on-campus instruction to remote learning and complying with a shelter-in-place order. This can cause feelings of stress and anxiety.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a resource for Mercer students that serves as a safe space for counseling needs. We spoke to Dr. Emily Abend Piassick, the director of CAPS on the Macon campus since 2008, about how students can handle difficult feelings during this time.

What are some of the reactions you’ve been hearing from students and the Mercer community during the pandemic?

We are hearing the gamut of reactions from students. Everything from stress regarding the unknown, sadness and grief about loss of the spring semester they expected, anxiety about moving home, relief that they will be going home, frustration with their level of motivation, relief that they are able to complete their classes online, stress regarding being at home and trying to find balance between helping family and finishing classes, worry about summer jobs, internships, study abroad, worries for themselves and their family, family dynamic issues, hope that they will be able to return to campus sometime soon.

How do you identify stress and anxiety? What are the signs to look for?

I think many people are feeling stress and anxiety as well as depressive symptoms during these unprecedented times. Symptoms can include but are not limited to:

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, on edge
  • Pulling away from friends, family and support system/isolating
  • Feeling fatigue
  • Stomach issues
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Sleeping too much
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sadness
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Difficulty with focus
  • Lack of motivation

If these symptoms become unmanageable and/or interfere with your daily life, it is important to reach out to CAPS or to a mental health provider in your area.

What are some ways students can cope with these feelings?

I think it is important to acknowledge the feelings — whatever emotions you are experiencing — and recognize that these feelings are understandable. Some people think that COVID-19 is not directly impacting them, and therefore they should not be feeling the way they do, but it is affecting everyone on various levels, whether it’s going to online classes, limits on where we can go to eat, moving home, graduation, the unknown about when we will return to campus, etc.

I think that there is a lot of pressure to perform like we normally do, but times are different, and we need to give ourselves some compassion.

Students with a history of mental health issues like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder may be experiencing more intense symptoms due to the additional stress of COVID-19 and the impact on them, family, friends, etc. Here are some ways to cope with anxiety, stress, and depression:

  • Stay connected with friends and family
  • Be gentle with yourself
  • Use stress management techniques, such as deep breathing
  • Keep to some routine
  • Move your body
  • Let yourself have your emotions — whatever they are (sadness, fear, frustration, happiness, etc.)
  • Get some sleep
  • Go outside and get some air while maintaining social distance
  • Recognize and acknowledge things are different
  • Lower some of the high expectations of yourself
  • Set healthy boundaries
  • Engage in activities you enjoy
  • Contact CAPS or a therapist in your area for help

Many families are dealing with relationship issues being quarantined in close quarters. How do you recommend handling relationship conflict at this time?

We are spending a lot of time with family right now. Even the best of family relationships can have conflict. If you have a good relationship with your family, I encourage talking about your feelings with your family to provide yourself a voice and to share how you feel. Having open and transparent communication can help diffuse tension and stress. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone takes courage, but it can lead to a better relationship.

If you are dealing with a more tenuous relationship at home, I think it is important to establish healthy boundaries. I talk with students a lot about creating a protective bubble around themselves as a way to establish healthy boundaries in whatever relationship they are in whether with family, friends, etc. This bubble is a figurative reminder that what someone says can bounce off the bubble and not get inside them.

Self care is a priority right now, regardless of the type of family situation you have going on.

Do you have any tips for concentrating on studying and exams with anxiety?

I think it is important to acknowledge that the study techniques you used prior to online classes may not be working for you now.

Create a realistic schedule of times to study and times to take a break. In the past, you might have been able to focus a couple of hours, but now you may need to break the time into more manageable chunks, i.e. study biology from 2-3 p.m. then take a 15-minute break and return to study biology from 3:15-4:15 p.m. or switch subjects. Or you may only be able to focus for 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break.

Taking breaks while studying is very important. I hear a lot that students don’t think they have the time to take a break, but breaks give us time to decompress. I kind of think of the brain as a sponge. If you think of a sponge, it can only absorb a certain amount of liquid until the liquid starts rolling off the sponge. We can keep trying to use it, but it isn’t going to absorb more. It is not until we squeeze out the sponge that we can absorb more. I think of studying in this same way. You can only take in so much information while studying. You may think the material is being absorbed into your brain, but it isn’t. Taking a break is your way of squeezing out the sponge. Once you take the break, you will find you are absorbing the material more effectively

In addition, deep breathing and relaxation techniques may help manage anxiety while studying or during your exams. Use positive self-talk. Using statements talking to yourself that you would say to a friend like, “You’ve got this.”

If students are concerned about their mental health, how do they seek resources with many doctors’ and therapists’ offices closed?

I encourage all Mercer students to contact CAPS on the Macon or the Atlanta campus to provide assistance.

All Macon-based students (any undergraduate or graduate program on any of the Macon campuses) and all School of Medicine students (Macon, Atlanta, Columbus and Savannah campuses), may contact CAPS Macon by calling (478) 301-2862 or visiting the website for additional updates and information.

All Atlanta-based students, School of Medicine students on the Atlanta campus and Atlanta-based Regional Academic Centers students may contact CAPS Atlanta by calling (678) 547-6060 or visiting the website for additional updates and information.

Due to licensing laws and knowledge of resources, students continuing their studies online who are now residing out of Georgia are encouraged to call CAPS for assistance with finding resources in their community and/or to visit the CAPS website for more information.


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Julia Morrison
Julia Morrison is the director of arts marketing at Mercer University, where she seeks to promote The Grand Opera House, McEachern Art Center, Tattnall Square Center for the Arts, Townsend School of Music and the McDuffie Center for Strings.