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Credit: Diego Cárdenas Uribe

To say this semester has been unkind to us is an understatement. Many STEM students (and professors, for that matter) report that the workload they’re currently experiencing is unlike anything they’ve faced prior to this semester, and students in all disciplines describe both physical and psychological symptoms brought on by “Zoom Fatigue.” More broadly speaking, the pandemic itself has wrought significant effects on the emotional state of American society. Last month, a study in JAMA Network Open found that symptoms of depression were three times more prevalent during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Moreover, a renewed discussion of racial injustice in the past several months has raised concerns about mental health in Black communities

Acknowledging our stressors and doing something about them can be daunting, particularly when they are quite clearly unsolvable. When you’re stressed because of the uncertainty of the pandemic and its impact on your education and career, it seems impossible that it can ever go away. However, dealing with that stress requires a realization that you’re in control of more than you think. 

Often, our stresses can be external: the anxiety we feel comes from immutable circumstances both large and small. For example, the overwhelming coursework of online classes and the crushing loneliness forced by COVID-19 isolation are beyond our grasp and seemingly unceasing. But Michal Saraf, the senior clinical director at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) suggested to me in a recent conversation that mindfulness — a collection of techniques with roots in Buddhism, clinical psychology, and beyond — is one of the ways people can reconcile themselves with that lack of control. The key is to rewire your thinking away from the outside world and towards yourself. 

However, the way in which we engage with ourselves is crucial. A considerable part of stress is judgment and devastatingly negative self-talk. For example, when we procrastinate an assignment or do poorly on a test, our first reaction might be to criticize ourselves for not studying enough or wasting too much time on the internet. Our judgments are centered around the things that we failed to complete yesterday or will fail to complete today. But Saraf suggests that “the goal of mindfulness is to move away from ‘the shoulds’ and other judgment-based responses, and into the world of just observing.”

The cornerstone of mindfulness is the notion of being in the present moment, and understanding that thoughts — both positive and negative — come and go. We don’t necessarily have control over the hard times or when they occur, but what we do have control over (even if it doesn’t feel like it) is how we react to the hard times and how we talk to ourselves when they hit. By treating yourself with kindness and forgiveness, you make it easier to keep moving forward. 

This is not to say that anxiety itself is something to be avoided, muted, or talked out of existence. “Without anxiety, we wouldn’t have the urge to do things and we wouldn’t recognize danger when it is there,” Saraf said. The fear we experience every time we step outside — despite its unpleasantness — is a good thing. Without it, we wouldn’t be motivated to put on masks, socially distance, or avoid crowds. 

But sometimes, that anxiety can be overwhelming and evoke feelings of powerlessness. In fact, Saraf noted that, in addition to concerns over school and personal relationships, COVID-19, racial injustice and violence, and the current political climate have been contributing to some of the reasons students approach CAPS. Dealing with it is difficult, but the first step relies on understanding what you can be in command of in your everyday life. Channeling your frustration into actions that are intentional can help drive away some of that anxiety, whether that be reaching out to someone you are close to for support, voting, or protesting. If your stress is related to school, maybe meeting with a TA or reaching out to a classmate to form a study group would help. 

Stress doesn't have to paralyze you. When it feels like everything is out of control, pause and think about the ways in which you are already in control. It’s going to be okay, I promise. 

VARUN SARASWATHULA is a College junior from Herndon, V.A. studying the Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management. His email is vsaras@sas.upenn.edu.

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