Degrees of Coping

Female university students learn how to manage increased anxiety due to COVID-19.

By Julia Vaiano | Featured image via Unsplash

Andrea Silva enters her quaint kitchen, settles into a chair and places her small Tim Hortons Iced Capp on the table. It’s 8 a.m. on Monday, November 9, 2020, which marks the start of a new school week, and Silva can’t help but already feel anxious. Her dark brown hair with blonde tips is pulled back into a messy bun, and her chocolate-brown eyes look notably fatigued.

The 20-year-old student spots her floral-patterned day planner sprawled before her. She sees a long list of assignments scribbled on the page. Silva shuts the planner, feeling her stomach churning from her increasing anxiety. Her mind begins to race as she worries about falling behind in her studies because of how demanding online school is.

Her heart palpitates in her chest and her breathing becomes unsteady. Silva panics and begins to feel dizzy as she struggles to breathe. She closes her eyes and does a breathing technique where she takes 10 breaths, inhaling each time for four seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds. After slowly exhaling for the last time, Silva feels the tension lessen; her breathing returns to a steady pace. 

 Silva is a third-year concurrent education and English major at York University. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is completing all her courses online from home. She feels like she is on “an emotional rollercoaster” because online schooling has heightened her anxiety. She is struggling with online school because of how “time-consuming it is.”

Silva is not the only student struggling with mental health issues because of the pandemic. Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID. Some of them, however, have discovered effective coping strategies to calm and centre themselves during these challenging and uncertain times, such as breathing techniques and practicing yoga.

“Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID.”

An article published on November 24, 2020, by The Conversation, a Canadian independent source of news for the academic community, states that in comparison to males, “more female students indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to their stress and mental health, and that it has significantly disrupted their academic studies.”

Silva worries about excelling academically. Every night, she sits in front of her computer, trying to stay awake. Since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Silva’s sleep schedule has not been consistent because she has difficulty limiting how much time she devotes to her academic studies.

“I often overthink, creating maybes and what-if scenarios in my head of falling behind and getting bad grades,” she says. “I start to believe these scenarios at one point, and I start to get panicky.” 

Rachel Browne, 21, a physical education major at Brock University, is also having difficulty focusing at home because she’s not in a classroom environment. 

The most challenging part for Browne is adhering to a consistent study schedule. “It’s really testing my time management skills and ability to get stuff done and not procrastinate because everything is asynchronous,” she says.

Both Browne and Silva are the type of students who would often speak with their professors after class to receive clarification and answers to their questions. Now, they have to rely on email or Zoom meetings to communicate with their professors and tutorial leaders. Being unable to receive immediate assistance or answers to their questions exacerbates their anxiety.

 “Even in between class breaks, I would always walk over to see my professor and ask a question if I needed to,” she says. “Now, with every single course, I have to send emails or schedule a Zoom meeting in advance. Either way, it takes longer to receive a response.”

Browne longs for the socializing that occurred on campus. “I miss being able to see my friends and have study groups with them,” she says.

Silva is not only anxious about online learning but about how the pandemic has affected her finances. In March 2020, Silva was laid off from her job at a gym and now receives the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as compensation. She has no choice but to be extremely conscientious about how much money she is spending per month because she now receives less money, and she is still expected to contribute to some of the household expenses at home.

Her concern regarding her finances has caused her anxiety to increase. “If my anxiety were a scale, I would have broken it already,” she says.

Grace (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), 18, an early childhood studies major at the University of Guelph-Humber, is also concerned about her finances because she could not find employment over the summer. “It’s frustrating because I wanted to work a lot so I could put away money before starting university,” she says. Grace received the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) over the summer months, which provides financial support to recent high school graduates and postsecondary students who could not find work because of COVID-19.

Although the government support was helpful, many students continued to feel stressed about their finances. Statistics Canada released a report, “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on postsecondary students,” on May 12, 2020. It found that, “Prior to the announcement of the CESB, 73% of participants indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. This declined [but to only] 61% following the announcement.”

Both Grace and Silva say they would have more than likely made more money if they’d worked during the summer months. 

 “I’m more stressed now because I think so much more before making any purchases to ensure they are necessary, and I’m buying products I need instead of want,” Silva says. When she feels overwhelmed from financial and other anxieties, she relies on breathing techniques to calm her anxiety. 

Breathing techniques have been proven to be effective when it comes to alleviating anxiety. According to Medical News Today, “Experts often recommend breathing exercises as a way to cope with anxiety. Such exercises help people slow their heart rate and feel calm.”

Breathing techniques are Silva’s best coping strategies for anxiety, but for Jessica D’Rozario, 21, yoga has proven to be an effective coping strategy. 

D’Rozario lives in St. Catharines with three roommates and studies psychology at Brock University. Due to the social restrictions imposed by COVID-19, her social circle has become limited.

D’Rozario is a lively and energetic woman who has long, blonde, pin-straight hair and friendly hazel eyes. She has a genuine passion for the nightlife and never misses an opportunity, as she puts it, “to go on an adventure.” 

Before the pandemic, D’Rozario looked forward to spending her weekends meeting up with her group of friends at local bars, restaurants, and clubs. Occupied by her full-time school schedule and her busy social life, D’Rozario seldom had a moment alone.

“When the lockdown first happened, I panicked because I relied on going out with my friends all the time to relieve my stress,” she says.

This bubbly, vivacious woman, who always had weekend plans, couldn’t cope with being housebound. She suddenly had all this extra free time and was left alone with her thoughts, which led her to dwell on her worries. Her anxiety spiralled out of control because she couldn’t accept losing her social life.

She began to panic over the uncertainty of how long she would have to remain isolated from her friends. A sense of hopelessness settled over her like a dark storm cloud that she couldn’t seem to shake. 

“I suffered because I missed seeing my friends in person, and having a physical interaction with other people is significant because it’s a big factor in relieving my stress,” she says.

She realized she needed to find another coping strategy other than socializing with her friends. With her roommate, she decided to return to practicing yoga by watching videos on YouTube.

The practice of yoga is about stretching and concentrating on holding different poses while focusing on breathing. Focusing on maintaining a pose and controlling your breath can distract you from anxious thoughts and worries. 

Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in Psychology Today in August 2020 where he discussed the benefits of yoga for generalized anxiety disorder. “Staying focused on your body and breath gives your brain a long-overdue break,” he said. “After just one session, it’s possible to come away with a quieter mind.”

Yoga has helped relieve D’Rozario’s anxiety. “Since I started practicing yoga again, I have to say I feel a lot calmer, and my mind feels so much clearer,” she says.

A recent study published in August 2020, also in Psychology Today discusses how yoga’s popular and inexpensive practice can help treat adults’ anxiety. Dr. Naomi Simon, a lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health, said, “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”

Practicing yoga has also proven to be an effective tool in relieving Grace’s anxious feelings. She was so looking forward to starting her first year at university, where she could meet new friends and join extracurricular clubs, but with COVID, she could not be as social as she intended to be. 

Being stuck at home for such a long period was causing her to feel nervous and restless. She decided to practice yoga for the first time to relax and keep busy.

“I’ve always been an active person. I was used to playing rep soccer for the longest time, which I liked because it was so fast-paced. But I started reading things online about how yoga could be good for relaxation and reducing anxiety, so I decided to give it a try,” she says.

She decided to commit to practicing yoga three times a week by watching videos on YouTube. After starting this routine, she observed the positive effects yoga had on both her mind and body. Since practicing yoga, she feels more relaxed, less apprehensive, and no longer on-edge all the time. 

Rachel Liebman, the assistant director for York University’s Psychology Clinic, advises that in addition to exercising, spending time outdoors can be an effective strategy in calming the mind and the body.

Liebman also recommends keeping a stable and consistent routine, which includes maintaining a good and healthy sleep schedule, taking time away from the computer screen, and making sure to contain your work hours.

“It’s also important to find opportunities to connect with people in the ways that are possible. Be flexible with what is available to you,” she says.

She acknowledges this is a challenging time for everybody but knows it’s an especially difficult time for young people, who are struggling because they, in particular, need social connections and are not receiving them because of the circumstances.

Liebman believes it’s important students recognize they are not alone. She says that relying on the smallest interventions can make the biggest difference in reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. “Don’t underestimate the value of small interventions. You know, like the five-minute text or walk outside.” 

Silva agrees with Liebman. During the pandemic, she has relied on technology to stay in communication with her friends by exchanging text messages and talking on the phone.

When asked about how often she speaks to her close friends, Silva’s face lights up and she smiles. “I talk to my friends every day,” she says, “and they always manage to make me laugh, and sometimes, there are moments when I’m laughing so hard I temporarily forget about the COVID-19 pandemic and all my worries, and I’m just happy.”

Julia Vaiano, vaianojulia@gmail.com, is a freelance writer.

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