‘Everyone is feeling a little isolated’: Students, counsellors offer tips to cope with pandemic stress

young adult woman looks stressed while studying
Counsellors are reminding students to connect with friends, make time for relaxing activities and to cut themselves some slack during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended life around the world (photo by Marco Piunti/iStockPhoto via Getty Images)

Rachel Berger-Viflanzoff never had much difficulty coping with stress or anxiety until she reached university.

As a first-year University of Toronto student, she says she encountered more difficult courses and a heavier workload than at her Winnipeg high school, where she received excellent grades and maintained a good relationship with teachers.

At the time, Berger-Viflanzoff was enrolled in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s math specialist program.

“I found I was getting worse grades and I was feeling a lot of self-doubt because of that, and I didn't really know how to interact with professors when I wasn't the top student,” she says.

“It felt very awkward for me to go and ask for help.”

Yet, Berger-Viflanzoff was also of the mindset that if supportive resources exist, she should use them. So, when she needed help managing anxiety, she turned to Health & Wellness staff and Trinity College’s on-site mental health services.

At its peak, she says anxiety prevented her from checking her grades or even reading her professor’ comments on assignments because she found herself taking them personally. Counsellors helped her cope by encouraging her to adopt constructive patterns of thinking and to identify thoughts that were irrational or anxious, she says.

Now, she is on track to graduate this year and attend law school in the fall. She says it’s important for students who are facing increased stress and anxiety to know about the range of mental health supports available to them.

Berger-Viflanzoff’s experience isn’t uncommon. And far more university students appear to be struggling with increased stress and anxiety this year due to COVID-19. One U.S. study published last September found 71 per cent of students reported higher levels of stress and anxiety due to the outbreak, citing worries about loved ones’ health, sleep disruptions and social isolation.

“Socially, everyone is feeling a little isolated and cut off,” Berger-Viflanzoff says.

Ramata Tarawally, Trinity’s associate director, community wellness in the office of the dean of students, has helped students navigate the many challenges associated with pursuing a degree during the pandemic.

In her conversations with students, Tarawally has noticed that many are demanding a lot of themselves even amid a crisis that has upended life around the world. The first step, Tarawally says, has been to explain that it’s OK to cut yourself a little slack.

“I’m finding a lot of students are expecting they should be better, they should be working more,” she says. “But no, this is a global pandemic and everyone’s tired and we’re not being our best selves. A lot of people aren’t really getting that.”

Tarawally empathizes with students, saying she sometimes has trouble getting out of bed in the mornings even though she’s typically an early riser.

“I’ve been doing way more sharing that I usually would so students understand their experience isn’t anomalous,” she says.

Tarawally recalls a student who said she felt needy for wanting to talk to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Oh my gosh, do you know how many times I Facetime my mom?” Tarawally replied. “I’m 32, and I’m still like, ‘Mom, can you virtually rub my back?’ Don’t worry about it.’”

For students seeking motivation or structure in their lives, Tarawally usually provides practical advice such as rearranging routines to make space for relaxing activities – for example, reading or going for a walk outside – that break up the monotony of studying at home.

“You might push things back a little bit, but all of a sudden you’re going to mimic more of a regular school life and also start to energize throughout the day, so you won’t feel so tired,” she explains.

Tarawally has also encouraged students to find something to look forward to – whether that’s a physically distanced outing with a friend or grabbing a coffee. “It doesn’t need to be every day, but we should try to have positive things in the future because all the uncertainty can be so much,” she says.

When students ask her about dealing with loneliness, Tarawally gives them tips to make meaningful connections with people while still respecting public health guidelines. In one case, she helped an extroverted student communicate her safety concerns with a friend and negotiate what precautions they would take on their weekly walks.

Tarawally has also connected students who are currently living outside of Canada with My SSP, an on-demand 24-7 counselling service for all U of T students that’s accessible in over 35 languages, while those at Trinity can also see one of the college’s peer counsellors. Similar services are also available to through Health & Wellness Peer Support on the St. George campus, the Peer Support Program at U of T Scarborough’s Health & Wellness Centre and Peers Supporting Peers at U of T Mississauga’s Health & Counselling Centre.

Karan Sharma, a master’s student in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, is Trinity’s senior mental health peer adviser and supports a small team of other student mental health peer advisers. “I prioritize validation because a lot of people feel alone,” he said. “It sucks, and everyone knows it sucks, but pretending that it doesn’t is not going to help.”

Sharma says he often advises students to do one nice thing for themselves each day – for example, getting some fresh air, making a smoothie or calling a friend.

“That would really set them up for success because it’s easy to fall into the trap of sitting in bed, going on Zoom and not taking care of yourself,” he says.

He’s also reminded students not to expect too much of themselves at a time when many people are struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Just over a year into the pandemic, Tarawally says she is continually impressed by how “resilient and amazing our students are.”

“I’m so thankful people are reaching out and we’re always there – but I also want students to know they’re doing such a good job at a crumby time,” she says.

“They should be proud of themselves for persevering, and I hope that they know that.”

Similarly, Berger-Viflanzoff – now a senior community adviser at Trinity who organizes events such as online quiz nights to foster a sense of community – says she’s impressed with the resilience of the college’s first year students.

“I can't really grasp how difficult it must have been,” she says, referring to the prospect of launching a university career in the midst of a pandemic. “But the first-years I’ve spoken to are doing so well.

“They’re adaptive and kind people who are making the most of this year.”

Find more information at U of T’s Student Mental Health Resource