Pandemic Guide to Surviving College

March 1, 2021

Reading Time: 9 minutes
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I remember when I first heard about the virus. It was a busy day in early March of 2020 filled with school assignments, readings, and exams. I was in the computer lab reviewing data with my research professor when she mentioned the spread of CoronaVirus from Wuhan, China. I felt nervous about the news but wasn’t concerned in the slightest way thinking it would all be brought under control. Little did I know, everything would change as the world headed for a full lockdown and soon Marymount Manhattan College (MMC) quickly transitioned to remote learning.

Things were getting chaotic! My friends and professors were leaving New York to be closer with families and to escape NYC – the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. Suddenly, I found myself living in a half-empty city, worrying about the health of my family and friends, the overall state of the economy, and the drastic changes MMC began implementing. College life is hard enough, now throw a global pandemic to that mix and it’s going to pose new challenges. One of those challenges being an increase in anxious feelings. Pandemic anxieties have affected us by disturbing our sleep and lowering our concentration levels, consequently impacting our ability to perform well with work and academics.

Anxiety Disorder vs. Anxious Feelings

Feeling anxious is a human experience. All of us have probably felt some level of anxiety at one point or another. Some anxiety is good; it’s a way to prepare or warn the mind of potential danger. When anxious feelings become unmanageable, they can interfere with tasks like or note-taking or doing homework.

So, what does it mean to have anxious feelings vs. anxiety disorder? Both anxiety disorders and anxious feelings can generate psychological and physiological responses. Anxiety disorders are prolonged, generally occur at a greater intensity, and can require professional help to work through them. The five major anxiety disorders include: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder.1

Anxious feelings are triggered by a stressor like an exam, first day of a new job, or a major public health crisis like COVID-19. They tend to be less intense and more manageable. However, anxious feelings can still have significant implications in work and school performance if they go unmonitored.

Why is it important to understand the difference? Well, when I talk about anxiety in this paper, I’m looking at anxious feelings that arise in response to stressors. Anxiety disorders can also play a role, but here I focus on feelings of anxiousness vs. anxiety disorder.

Pandemic Anxieties

As the pandemic continues to upend our lives, students and teachers are adapting to a new set of rules like social distancing, wearing masks, and remote learning. 57% of college students reported an increase in feeling anxious (Brown, 2020)2. An MMC rising Senior studying Biology shared these feelings, “yes, I have noticed an increase in feeling anxious since the beginning of the pandemic. I have been extremely nervous when it comes to school and assignments” (MMC Student).

It’s not just us students, but our professors are also dealing with anxiety. Course Hero, an education technology company, looked at the impact of distant learning on professors. Three out of four college faculty reported an increase in stress with the transition to remote learning and two-thirds of professors found it to be challenging meeting the mental health needs of students during the pandemic (Course Hero)3. A professor in the English department at MMC felt similarly, “I have been notably more anxious! I’ve been worrying about the health of my family (and country) a lot and experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety (like shortness of breath, tightness in chest, racing heart, sleeplessness, fatigue, etc.)” (MMC Professor). As anxieties rise in the midst of this pandemic, it’s important to understand how it can affect us and what we can do to manage these feelings. Learning to cope with anxious feelings can get us on the path to success.

Anxiety affects you

Anxiety can directly or indirectly affect us. A national college assessment showed that 21.9% of students who experienced anxiety received lower grades on exams or assignments, provided incomplete work, or dropped out of classes (Brown, 2016).4 Professors who faced high stress and anxiety from job demands were also at risk of low performance which can, in turn, hinder student achievement (Greenberg, 2016). The pandemic completely shifted our lives: it posed a serious health threat and distributed our economy. It’s normal to feel worried and anxious. Anxiety can manifest in different ways, but the two main ways it can affect us is through disturbed sleep and narrowed ability to focus.

Sleep

Imagine getting into your comfy bed ready to drift into sleep after a long day. Only you are wide awake and unable to rest. Your chest feels heavy, and you are now filled with anxiousness. Research shows full-time college students who reported poor sleep quality were more likely to perform poorly on academic tests (Gaultney, 2010).5 A Biology student at MMC was fine at the beginning of the lockdown, “I used to get around 8 hours of sleep every night, and usually went to bed and woke up around the same time every day. I found that at first, I was able to maintain some of my routine from before the pandemic at home.” However, later on, struggled to keep this balance, “as the lockdown extended, and reopening and containment seemed increasingly more uncertain I let go of those routines. My sleep routine was the first to go” (MMC Student). Professors also had trouble with sleep from pandemic anxieties, as an MMC Chemistry professor explains, “I don’t remember the last time I had a good night sleep without worry” (MMC Professor). Quality sleep is essential to feel energized, think clearly, and function properly. If you are struggling to meet academic or work demands it could be because you are not getting enough sleep. Remember we are not robots that can go on and on, it’s important to rest and recoup.

Ability to Focus

In writing this paper I was shocked to learn how much anxiety can affect our ability to focus. Anxious feelings can make it really difficult to concentrate on school, work, or other tasks that require mental energy. High-anxious individuals have a weakened ability to expand their scope of attention6 compared to low-anxious individuals (Najmi et al, 2013). In a study, people were identified as either high-anxious, high-depressed or non-anxious, non-depressed. They were then tested on their concentration and their ability to shift focus with changes. Interestingly, those who identified as high-anxious had the most difficulty with expanding the scope of attention, indicating that inability to maintain attention is specific to high-anxious individuals (Najmi et al, 2013).7

For high-anxious individuals’ distractions can be a barrier to academic success. Those with high anxiety have something known as cognitive inflexibility, meaning switching between different tasks is not easily feasible. Our home environment with distant learning and remote work, presents many more stimuli that can cause distractions. For example, having our phones nearby, or having multiple open tabs online, or having kids running around – they all create some type of distraction. Not only does this make it harder to focus, but with a narrower capacity to focus it will make it tough to get back on track.

Managing anxieties

So how can we establish ways to manage our anxious feelings? There are a few ways to combat pandemic anxieties. This includes structuring our days, limiting screen times, and reaching out for help.

Routines

The pandemic abruptly changed our day-to-day priorities throwing off our rhythm. Have you been able to organize your days since lockdown? It’s been especially harder for me to get organized and disciplined with remote learning. Routines are critical in academic achievement. Lack of structure and organization can increase feelings of anxiousness, and stress, which can lead to difficulty concentrating and focusing on work (Cherry, 2020). Professors also rely on routines, as an MMC professor from the English Department states, “having predictable routines (for me, my family, and my students) helped lessen the mental load of navigating a whole new mode of education” (MMC Professor).

Breaking down important tasks such as studying, reading, or doing homework can make the day less daunting. You can even incorporate breaks and sleep times into your schedule to avoid burnout. Getting organized can alleviate stress and anxious feelings, making your days more manageable and allowing you to become focused.

Limiting Screen time

Do you find yourself constantly on some sort of device since the lockdown? Remote learning has significantly increased screen time, which means a lot more consumption of information and time spent staring at our phones. Information overload can lead to feelings of anxiousness (Gorman, 2020). We live in a digital world where we have access to excessive amounts of information (and misinformation) right at our fingertips. A friend of mine was really affected by too much news – it became stressful to always hear about death rates going up due to COVID-19. Staying informed is important, but it’s just as important to unplug and refresh. That’s exactly what my friend did; unplugged from all devices once a week. If you find yourself endlessly scrolling through your phone, give yourself a time limit. Put your phone away, grab your favorite drink, and enjoy a device-free hobby (reading, writing, talking to a friend, etc.)

Relying on Community

Having a good support system can help with managing anxious feelings. Talking to family, friends, reaching out to a professional, or joining support groups can help release built-up internal pressures. I had a long conversation with an MMC student who battled with both depression and anxiety. Oftentimes they felt alone and unable to find support. It was heartbreaking to say the least to listen to their struggles. One thing they did to help cope with emotional and mental distress is calling NYC well hotline and seeking help. Just having someone to talk to made a big difference in their day.

Asking for help may not always be easy, but I encourage you to reach out. MMC Counseling and Wellness Center is also committed to working with you in times of need. You could also be a lending hand by being there for someone who may need your support. Let’s get through this difficult time together by helping one another. Conclusion

In doing the research and writing this paper, I’ve come to learn that it’s okay to take it easy, it’s okay to relax, and it’s okay to take a break. You are not lazy or unmotivated. After a tough year of living in survival mode, you are exhausted. The unprecedented events of COVID-19 have been scary, and confusing. It’s really important to not be so hard on yourself. Emotional wellbeing is crucial for successful academic and work performance. If you found yourself struggling with school or work during the pandemic, know that it’s not your fault and you are not alone. Be good to yourself, get plenty of rest, talk to loved ones, eat well, sleep well, and know that we are all in this together!

Footnotes:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): chronic anxiety, intense and exaggerated worry and tension for no specific reason

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Having recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). For example, extensive obsessive hand washing. Performing the obsessive task provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.

Panic disorder (PD): unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): developed after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal where there was physical danger. The trauma can trigger PTSD symptoms which can be violent and disastrous.

Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder: overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. For example, fear of speaking in formal or informal situations or eating or drinking in front of others.1

A survey conducted amongst 144 colleges comparing the first four weeks of fall 2020 with the first four weeks of fall 2019 showed. 2

A study by Course Hero looked at more than 570 full-time and part-time faculty at two- and four-year colleges and universities. The study examined the effects of the pandemic and faculty views on academic work environment and job satisfaction. 3

A 2015 National College Health Assessment survey conducted on students. 4

Participants included 1,845 college students at a large, southeastern public university. A sleep disorder questionnaire was administered during the 2007-2008 academic year. College students are at risk for sleep disorders, may also be at risk for academic failure.5

The range of stimuli an individual can focus their attention on over a period of time.6

The study identified students as either high-anxious, high-depressed individuals or non-anxious, non-depressed individuals and were given an attention scope task that measured their visual scope of attention, and their ability to adapt as their visual field changed. Results found that the high-anxious groups were inept in expanding their scope of attention more so than the depressed group, non-anxious group, and non-depressed group, which indicates that scope of attention is specific to high-anxious individuals.7

References:

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” APA Psychological Association, dictionary.apa.org/scope-of-attention. Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.

Arlinghaus, Katherine R. and Johnston, Craig A. “The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine.” Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov, 29 Dec. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378489.

Boston University, and Joel Brown. “Anxiety: The Most Common Mental Health Diagnosis in College Students | BU Today.” Boston University, 3 June 2019, www.bu.edu/articles/2016/college-students-anxiety-and-depression/#:%7E:text=The%20same%20survey%20found%20that,in%20the%20ACHA’s%202008%20survey.

Brown, Sarah. “Did the Pandemic Worsen the Campus Mental-Health Crisis? Maybe Not, Data Show.” CHronicle, 13 Oct. 2020, www.chronicle.com/article/did-the-pandemic-worsen-the-campus-mental-health-crisis-maybe-not-data-show?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in.

Brown, Wilson. “A Review of Sleep Disturbance in Children and Adolescents with Anxiety.” Wiley Online Library, 1 June 2018, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsr.12635.

Cherry, Kendra. “The Importance of Maintaining Structure and Routine During Stressful Times.” Verywell Mind, 21 Apr. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/the-importance-of-keeping-a-routine-during-stressful-times-4802638.

Gorman, Sara, and Jack Gorman. “Is Information Overload Hurting Mental Health?” Psychology Today, 4 June 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/denying-the-grave/202006/is-information-overload-hurting-mental-health.

“Faculty Wellness and Careers.” Course Hero, 18 Nov. 2020, www.coursehero.com/blog/faculty-wellness-research.

Gaultney, Jane. “The Prevalence of Sleep Disorders in College Students: Impact on Academic Performance.” Taylor & Francis, 23 Sept. 2010, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07448481.2010.483708.

Greenberg, MT. “Teacher Stress and Health.” RWJF, 26 July 2019, www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2016/07/teacher-stress-and-health.html.

Mazzone, Luigi, et al. “The Role of Anxiety Symptoms in School Performance in a Community Sample of Children and Adolescents.” PubMed Central (PMC), 5 Dec. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2228292.

Najmi, Sadia, et al. “ATTENTIONAL IMPAIRMENT IN ANXIETY: INEFFICIENCY IN EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF ATTENTION.” Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov, 21 Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3569031.

Staner, Luc. “Sleep and Anxiety Disorders.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Sept. 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181635.

“What Are the Five Major Types of Anxiety Disorders?” HHS.Gov, 21 Aug. 2015, www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html.

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