If this past year has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to care for our mental health. While COVID has changed many facets of our lives, one of the positives to come out of the pandemic is our collective willingness to be candid about our mental health and the difficulties that we’ve been facing in our daily lives. By challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues, we can create an open and supportive environment and work together to care for ourselves and others around us.
At UCI, the health and well-being of our students are always our top priority. This is why it’s important for faculty, staff, and other members of the Anteater community to understand the common challenges that students face and how we can help. With this goal in mind, I’m excited to work with the UCI Counseling Center to gain better insight on mental wellness and share their expertise with the larger UCI audience. This way, we can better identify students who may need help and know where to refer them to.
I think that for many of us, 2020 was the most stressful year of our lives. Between major natural disasters, the global pandemic, social unrest, and political extremism, it felt like the news cycle brought crisis after crisis. Naturally, these widespread issues trickled down into each and every one of our personal lives as we grappled with fear, uncertainty, and frustration.
For our students, the challenges of 2020 made what is already a very stressful time in their lives even worse. On top of the normal pressures to perform well academically and pursue opportunities like research and club activities, our students had to deal with all of this remotely. Increased familial responsibilities, financial concerns, technological limitations, and the loss of familiar routines all contributed to environments that were not always conducive to learning. With so much out of their control, it’s understandable why many of our students have openly shared heightened feelings of anxiety.
To gain a better understanding of anxiety, I met with Dr. Katie Ohene from the UCI Counseling Center once again. After our previous conversation on sleep deprivation, I was excited to pick her brain and get her professional insight on anxiety, its symptoms, and what we as faculty and staff can do to assist students who may be suffering from this common mental health challenge.
Vice Provost Dennin: Hi Dr. Ohene, it’s great to speak to you again! Today I wanted to talk about anxiety and get a better understanding of how this affects mental health. So to start, how would you define anxiety?
Dr. Ohene: To define anxiety, it’s important that we first differentiate between anxiety and stress because many of us use these terms interchangeably. The way that I like to describe the main difference is that stress is more short-term and acute. You might feel stressed about an exam or a big presentation coming up, but typically after that event is over, the stress is gone, you feel fine, and you can move on with your life.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is more chronic. Generalized anxiety, which is an umbrella term that encompasses more specific anxiety disorders, is a mental health disorder that’s characterized by an intense amount of worry. And this is worry that you can’t stop; it’s just there all throughout the day. People who experience anxiety can be worried about any number of things. They might be worried about work, school, their families, or other everyday situations. Anxiety can also be characterized by racing negative thoughts like “I’m not a good friend,” “I’m not a good partner,” “I’m not good at my job,” “nobody will ever like me,” or “nobody’s going to hire me.” With anxiety, it’s very hard to turn off your worries or these constant invalidating thoughts.
Vice Provost Dennin: Obviously, this type of ongoing distress can’t be good for your health. What are some of the effects of chronic anxiety?
Dr. Ohene: Like with many other mental health issues, anxiety can bleed into various areas of your life. For instance, if you’re feeling anxious, you may have trouble falling asleep or getting a restful night of sleep because you’re tossing and turning. Anxiety may also lead to gastrointestinal issues like stomach pain, and some people may even be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome due to ongoing anxiety. Anxiety is also linked to heart disease, respiratory issues, and chronic pain as a result of your body being tense all the time.
Individuals who suffer from really extreme anxiety may also experience panic attacks. An anxiety or panic attack occurs when feelings of anxiety peak. A person experiencing an anxiety attack may feel shaky, sweaty, and unstable. They may start hyperventilating, their heart rate may increase, and they may feel like they’re on the verge of passing out. Panic attacks can be really scary because they can strike unexpectedly, and the person experiencing the attack may not know what’s going on or why they’re experiencing these symptoms. In some cases, the person may not even remember the attack afterward.
Vice Provost Dennin: That does seem scary. And what makes this worse is that since the pandemic started, I’ve definitely gotten a sense that anxiety levels have risen, especially for students. Have you noticed a spike in students experiencing anxiety due to the pandemic?
Dr. Ohene: Definitely; the pandemic has unfortunately heightened anxiety concerns for folks that didn’t struggle with it before, and it’s definitely exacerbated symptoms for other folks who were already struggling with anxiety. I think that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic is the main reason for this. People may be feeling anxious because they’re worrying about what’s next or if the pandemic will ever end. A lot of people are also feeling anxious about whether or not they will be able to return to school or work and how they’ll take care of their family. Even now that things are getting better, there’s still a lot of uncertainty that can make people anxious. For instance, there’s still worry about vaccinations and whether or not they’ll actually work and whether things will ever feel safe again.
The constant exposure to bad or distressing news can also heighten anxiety. Before the pandemic, you might be exposed to bad news on TV after school or work and be like “Oh, that’s distressing; that’s difficult” but then kind of compartmentalize it and move on with your life. However, we’ve been at home throughout the last year, and it’s been difficult to escape awful news—whether it be about the pandemic, the anti-Black racism, mass shootings, politics, etc. The recent visibility of anti-Asian racism has also increased distress. So, not only are we feeling overwhelmed by all these awful events, but we also fall into a cycle where we can’t really escape the barrage of bad news.
The need for isolation and distancing is also a common trigger for anxiety for many people. The loss of social interaction can be really difficult, especially for those who are very social by nature. Having your relationships and social networks suddenly shifting and changing can also elevate feelings of anxiety because people feel more alone and unable to receive the support that they normally rely on to deal with their anxiety.
Vice Provost Dennin: With so many people feeling uneasy and stressed due to the factors you just mentioned, I imagine it might be difficult for some people to determine if what they’re feeling is anxiety that they should seek help for. What are some of the signs to watch out for?
Dr. Ohene: As a therapist, when I ask students about anxiety, I try to help them identify changes in their typical attitude or behaviors. So, one of the things to look out for are feelings of stress associated with things that didn’t really bother you before. You should also pay attention to situations or activities that you seem to be avoiding because they are causing you distress. For instance, if you start avoiding talking to certain people or start procrastinating on school or work assignments because they are making you feel too overwhelmed, then this could be a good indication that you’re dealing with anxiety. Many students also find that anxiety affects their academic performance because they have trouble focusing in class. If you find that you’re not paying attention during class because you’re feeling really nervous or worried, then this could also be a sign of anxiety.
Another big thing that I advise students to do is check in with their bodies and evaluate changes there. If you’re feeling restless and jittery or find that you start feeling sweaty and shaky, then these may be physical signs of anxiety. You may also find that you’re having trouble turning off your thoughts and falling asleep at night or that you often wake up in the middle of the night because you’re worried about something. This can also indicate that you are dealing with anxiety.
There are many other signs of symptoms of anxiety, but these are some of the most common ones that I advise students to look out for.
Vice Provost Dennin: So, if you’re a student who thinks that they’re experiencing anxiety, or if you’re a faculty or staff member who suspects that a student is dealing with anxiety, what are some of the things you would suggest to manage these feelings?
Dr. Ohene: There are so many ways to go about alleviating some of the distress related to anxiety. One of the things I often talk to students about is deep breathing exercises. So, if you’re starting to feel anxious, take a moment to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. I recommend using the four-square breathing technique. For this, you slowly inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four more seconds, and repeat until you start to feel a bit better.
Talk therapy, where you talk to a professional about what’s going on, can also be really helpful. Externalizing your worries or negative thoughts and actively challenging them can help you work through some of your anxious feelings. Journaling or recording your worries and fears is another great strategy for addressing the things that are making you anxious.
I also remind students to get active because exercising can distract you from anxious thoughts and burn off stress. Even if you don’t enjoy exercising, just getting up and doing an activity is a great way to alleviate anxiety. I recommend doing things that remind you of happy memories. For instance, cooking a meal that reminds you of home and your loved ones is a great way to nourish your body and also offer a sense of comfort that can help you calm down.
We’ve talked before about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep and having good sleep hygiene, and this is also important for managing anxiety. Being well-rested helps you manage worries and stress more effectively. Try to build a solid nighttime routine that emphasizes peace and relaxation so you have an easier time falling and staying asleep.
Finally, if you feel your anxiety building, you can try using grounding skills. Grounding skills are different from the other strategies I mentioned because instead of relaxing and sort of distracting you from your anxious thoughts or feelings, they actually help you focus and remain present. Grounding skills can include repeating a safety statement of who and where you are to remind yourself that you’re safe and bring you back to earth. You can also try focusing intensely on a certain sense or sensation that helps bring you out of an anxiety attack and helps you feel more grounded and settled.
Clearly, there are a lot of different strategies that you can try to help with your anxiety. So I really encourage students and anyone else who struggles with this to try different things out until they find what works best for them!
Vice Provost Dennin: These are some great options! Thank you for sharing your expertise and advice, Dr. Ohene. You’ve definitely helped me get a better grasp on anxiety, and I know that this will help students, faculty, and staff as well.
The UCI Counseling Center offers a variety of services and resources for students who may need additional support. All currently enrolled UCI students can access free Counseling Center services. Students can sign up for individual therapy appointments, join group therapy sessions and workshops, and receive referrals for off-campus mental health services on their website here. The Counseling Center also provides online self-help services. To determine which type of service is right for you, students can check this helpful guide here.
The Counseling Center has also compiled a list of mental health resources for students, faculty and staff, and parents and families. Their site also features a large collection of wellness resources covering topics such as managing stress during the pandemic, self-care during quarantine, and much more.
While the health and wellbeing of our students should always be a top priority, I want to remind UCI faculty and staff that their mental health is also important. If you need additional support, please know that UCI has services and resources to help. I encourage you to reach out to your supervisor or explore the UCI Faculty/Staff Support Services website here to learn about your many options. Faculty/Staff Support Services is a free and confidential resource available to all faculty and staff.