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Coping With Stress

With a pandemic and unrest, anxiety is soaring — UD experts have answers

by | January 8, 2021

Photo courtesy of iStock

Jan 8, 2021

Stress and, yes, stressing about stress, can take many forms for students and all members of the community. Fortunately, there are some basic, simple and free wellness tactics that can be employed to try to relieve stress. One of those is to spend a few minutes every day taking intentionally deep, slow, grounding breaths — “one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves,” said Kelsey Chambers, a psychologist in the University of Delaware’s Center for Counseling and Student Development.

Few would argue: The college experience is a fleeting and formative period to be cherished long after one outgrows Ramen Noodles and that dorm-ubiquitous John Belushi poster. 

College is such an important, fun and singular experience that it is easy to forget it can also be really — like, really — stressful. Not listed on any syllabus? All-nighters spent deciphering formulas and citing sources. Navigating fraught roommate relationships and shoestring budgets. Learning to thrive in a university ecosystem while simultaneously preparing for life outside the bubble. 

Throw in the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — a novel disease that continues wreaking personal and economic havoc worldwide — and all that undergraduate stress balloons like solid matter undergoing thermal expansion. (Thank you, chemistry 101.) 

The reality is, “human bodies are not designed for this type of chronic stress,” said Jeffrey Spielberg, an assistant professor of clinical science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware. He is also Director of UD’s Connectomics of Anxiety and Depression Lab.

Turns out, human bodies are more designed for quick bursts of stress, like the kind caveman and cavewoman ancestors experienced running from saber-toothed tigers. Back then, the fight-or-flight response came in handy regularly. Helped by a rush of the hormone cortisol, bodily systems not needed for a quick and alert getaway — like digestion — temporarily shut down so that energy could be redirected elsewhere, like pumping blood and oxygen to the muscles.

Unfortunately, the human body is not great at distinguishing between this type of running-for-your-life scenario and other, daily stressors — like battling traffic, rushing to meet a deadline or — yes — navigating the constant threat of a virus. This means people, including your average college students, are experiencing a constant flood of the cortisol hormone. And too much of a good thing? It becomes toxic.

“It used to be that if you kept getting attacked by some animal, you either escaped it or you were probably eaten,” Spielberg said. “But these days, there is no escape.”

Over time, this overflow of cortisol can lead to a number of negative physiological effects, including panic attacks, weight gain, even brain cell death. Research also indicates those with higher levels of cortisol are more likely to experience general cognitive blurriness — aka brain fog.

If this sounds terrifying, try not to fret. Before you start stressing over your stress level, Spielberg said to consider this: Not all worry is bad worry. After all, it would be odd and a bit dangerous if college students were not feeling at least a bit more on-alert these days.

“There is obviously some evolutionary benefit to worry,” Spielberg said. “It serves a purpose — it is adaptive and reasonable — if it spurs you to action.”

If worrying over grades gets a student to prepare for exams, great. If worrying over a pandemic prompts that same person to wear a face mask and heed proper safety precautions, even greater. Problems arise when all positive behavior modifications have been made, and the fretting persists. If the worry becomes pathological — hijacking a person’s thoughts to the point of distraction — that is a different story. It is one thing to worry about (and therefore avoid) close proximity to unmasked passersby while outside, for example, but if you are still fixating on these individuals once back in the safety of your own home, that is a good indication a stress response is in hyperdrive. Another sign? Obsessively combing through the web for latest bad news.

Increasingly, Spielberg said, people who may have been able to control their worry in the past are being “pushed over the edge” by the pandemic. And, unfortunately, college students are particularly susceptible to these tendencies, since certain parts of the brain that aid in this control are still developing into the 30s.

On the flip side, a still-developing brain is also going to be more amenable to stress-coping strategies.

Kelsey Chambers, staff psychologist with UD’s Center for Counseling and Student Development (CCSD), has been doling out these strategies to Blue Hens looking to safeguard their mental wellbeing. Beyond advocating the basics of good sleep and nutrition — which become even more paramount during a pandemic — one of her suggestions involves focusing, as much as possible, on the present moment. This is the theory behind mindfulness training — your brain cannot be hijacked by thoughts of what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future if you are mentally present in the now.

Easier said than done.