- Stressors such as COVID-19 and the political climate have resulted in significantly increased anxiety among college students.
- Marginalized populations are further impacted by these unique challenges.
- A combination of short- and long-term strategies can help students to better manage their anxiety.
“I’ve [been feeling] a lot of anxiety about my future. [It] feels like everything in my life has been disrupted, [and] it makes me feel very anxious about more bad things happening,” says Teresa M.*, a first-year graduate student at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Teresa, like many other college students, has been feeling the impact of stressors such as COVID-19 and the political climate. A 2020 study conducted by Course Hero and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators reports that anxiety levels in students have increased dramatically over the last year.
The challenge is that common ways students might combat anxiety—primarily connecting with loved ones—haven’t been as accessible in recent months. “This political climate really calls for communities to gather and support each other, but the pandemic makes that hard,” says Purna Bajekal, a mental health counselor who specializes in somatic (body-based) and dance/movement therapy at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
Historically marginalized identities such as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students, anyone who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community, or students with limited financial resources might be struggling even more. A 2020 expert commentary published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior discusses how marginalized populations are facing increased disparities during the pandemic. For example, a lack of access to safe and fair work that provides reasonable compensation and benefits (including healthcare) is something marginalized populations are already challenged by. Additionally, jobs that are considered “essential” are more often worked by BIPOC, placing them at a higher risk for COVID-19. These and other added stressors make managing anxiety and striving for mental wellness even more difficult.
It’s no wonder so many of us are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. There are no easy answers, but there are some important steps you can take to help navigate your mental health.
No one can do it alone, least of all in a season of life when so many major events are happening back-to-back. “Reaching out to friends and family helps me identify and talk about my anxieties,” says Jonathan R., a first-year graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Once you know what you’re being challenged with, you can better decide how to move forward.
Anxiety can be exacerbated by isolation, so making connections is key. You and a friend might commit to checking in on one another routinely (e.g., a once-a-week video or phone call), making sure that you’re both taking time for self-care. It can be easy for check-ins to devolve into surface-level pleasantries, but try to be intentional about leaning into the conversation. Meaningful conversations over video or phone, rather than a brief text exchange, will be much more helpful in forming connections.
You can also consider joining an affinity group on campus. These focused groups are centered around an aspect of one’s identity, such as religion or orientation; or a common interest or hobby. Affinity groups are a great way for marginalized populations to find support. “Finding a sense of community and support that may be more specialized [to an identity] can help with what someone is going through,” Bajekal says.
Check in with your body
If you’ve been navigating anxiety for a long time, you’ve probably already heard about the benefits of movement. From personal experience, I can say that it really does help.
“Your body responds to your mental and emotional state,” says Bajekal. Vice versa, your mental state can also respond to your body, and movement can be a way to release energy and emotions. Whether it’s a short walk, a full workout, or an emergency dance party (my personal favorite), try to get yourself active. To help foster that sense of community, you can do a quick online search for inclusive virtual workouts; these can include body-positive movements and videos led by BIPOC or LGBTQ+ folks.
Feeling so overwhelmed by anxiety that getting out of bed doesn’t seem possible? Something as simple as light stretching while lying in bed can be beneficial. “Anxiety can feel like it’s all happening in your head,” says Bajekal. The goal isn’t necessarily to exercise but to “find ways to connect with your body.” You can even try a body scan meditation as a judgment-free way to check in with your physical and emotional state.
Meet with a professional
Self-care and leaning into friendships are important tips, but sometimes we need a little extra help. Consider getting in contact with a mental health professional, such as a therapist. There are plenty of benefits to therapy when it comes to managing anxiety, as well as overall mental well-being. Connecting with a therapist can get you talking about your day-to-day stressors and overall life changes you want to make, and they can provide advice and examples to help you implement practical changes in your mental health care. To make therapy more accessible, many colleges offer free sessions for students; visit your campus counseling center to find out what resources are available to you. If you are looking for a BIPOC therapist, you can check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for helpful links and resources.
Having professional support also opens the conversation for medication (such as antidepressants or medication to help with anxiety), which is incredibly beneficial for a lot of people. If you think this is a step you want to take, speak with a therapist, psychiatrist, or health care provider. Share any concerns and questions you have, and they can help you decide if medication would be a helpful support for you.
Use grounding techniques
There’s a reason grounding skills are recommended in every conversation about anxiety. The best grounding techniques are quick, require minimal resources, and can be done virtually anywhere. When deciding which ones to add to your repertoire, it can be helpful to start with the symptoms most challenging to you.
If you have a tendency for quick, short breaths (or feeling like you can’t breathe altogether), focus on taking slow, steady breaths and feeling your lungs expand and deflate. For a more formulaic breathing practice, box breathing is an option that I highly recommend. Or try this simple breath counting technique, which is a great way to calm a busy mind.
Another symptom? Vertigo or dizziness. To counter this, “Simply put your feet on the ground and feel the floor supporting you underneath your feet,” recommends Bajekal. This is a personal favorite grounding technique of hers, and another I use regularly.
Other grounding skills include humming a note continuously or practicing visualization (closing your eyes and envisioning yourself in a peaceful, happy environment). Experiment with different techniques and determine which are most helpful with interrupting anxious thoughts and calming your body down.
Be gentle with yourself
Perhaps the most important thing to do when struggling with anxiety or mental illness is to let yourself rest. Anxious thoughts can push us to want to achieve more and constantly do better, but that isn’t always an option. Some of these steps might seem too big, and that’s OK.
“Listen to your body and see what you’re feeling [every] day,” says Bajekal. Does a walk around campus sound feasible? Or is a guided meditation in bed more your speed? Notice what your body and mind need and give yourself permission to focus on feeling better, not on accomplishing more.
We’ve been living in stressful times, and increased anxiety is completely valid, but that doesn’t mean it has to run your life. Whether you’re taking small steps, like 10 minutes of stretching every morning, or making major lifestyle changes, like starting therapy, there are things within your control that can help make the day-to-day anxiety easier.
* Name changed for privacy.
Bajekal, Purna, psychologist and mental health counselor, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas.
Course Hero & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2020, October). Student wellness during COVID-19: What roles do universities play in supporting their students? College Pulse. https://marketplace.collegepulse.com/img/student_wellness_collegepulse_final.pdf
Kantamneni, N. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalized populations in the United States: A research agenda. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2020.103439