Helping SCU Students Cope During COVID-19
By Tracy Seipel
A campus expert offers insights into emotional wellness, resilience.
As Santa Clara University professor of counseling psychology Dale Larson listens carefully to his students’ stories about how the coronavirus pandemic has turned their worlds upside down, he points to the words of American poet and civil right activist Maya Angelou: “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Larson trains students for careers as therapists, and part of his teaching includes how to counsel patients through grief, loss, and trauma. He likens our period of social isolation to those feelings, something he calls a “non-death related” loss.
“We have lost our safety, we have lost our sense of security, our social connections,” he says. “Stress and loss are inseparable.”
But there are ways to heal and help ourselves, says Larson, most importantly by talking with others about our feelings in this unimaginable time. Below, the professor offers some thoughts for SCU students, undergraduate and graduate alike, during this challenging period.
How would you characterize your students’ states of mind?
It’s highly fitting in a counseling psychology class for grief, loss, and trauma to share what losses the pandemic is creating for them, and almost every student has responded with a different kind of loss: a loss of freedom, the loss of graduation, of contact with friends and socializing. And they’re also missing their time on campus.
For our international students, it’s the inability to take care of their families who live in other countries, and their family members’ corresponding concerns for them.
Students who are married with children are trying to find a way to continue to live and work, while suddenly they’re at home managing their children who are doing their school work.
It’s also a horrible ending for undergraduates’ college careers, because they are dealing with the potential loss of unemployment. Jobs will not necessarily be available.
What else are your students pondering?
What you hear in the background is a kind of shudder that stems from students’ awareness that non-existence is entirely possible. It’s extremely out of the ordinary, but COVID-19 has started to take that dimension for us. As we see the fatalities that are predicted to happen, it’s going to be very difficult for people to witness. I think everyone needs to negotiate this new heightened awareness of the fragility of life and convert it into constructive action, which can include altruistic actions that restore purpose and hope for us.
You’ve suggested that the precautions we’re taking resemble “avoidance behaviors” in your field of counseling psychology.
I call it SCAReD: Situational Coronavirus Activated Related Disorders. We are all SCAReD. That can be a good thing in terms of self-preservation, but it does push a “chill” button inside that says, “This is threatening on an existential level.” Today, we worry about being careful when taking in the mail, or getting groceries, or whether we wiped something off. That is upsetting, and so we go into a stress response. How long will it take before we can shake someone’s hand again without being worried that a germ will kill us? Or have to keep our distance from people?
These are the kinds of behaviors and experiences that underlie many of the conditions we treat in psychotherapy. We’re all having to adapt to coping styles that are almost diagnosable, though they are adaptive in the moment. We will later need to learn how to safely return to a less anxious and a more socially connected way of being in the world.
Anxiety levels are pretty high right now, but you are encouraging students not to let fear take over.
Anxiety is driving your car and worrying about whether you had your brakes checked; in this case, your worries are modulated by your cerebral cortex. It slows things down so that you don’t let the fear cycle get launched. Fear is when you put on the brakes, and they’re not working. When we have a fear reaction that is not warranted by the realities of our situation, it’s called an “amygdala hijack” in which your rational thought process does not intervene to stop the fear response. We don’t want that. If these kinds of stress responses become chronic for us, our psychological and physical health is jeopardized.
How does someone recover from that emotional hijack?
You can recover by slowing down and listening non-judgmentally to yourself in that moment. Try to relax, pay attention to your breathing, follow the rising and falling of your abdomen, in a meditative and mindful way. Meditation can help; you might try using the online program Headspace to get this self-care practice built into your day. I love what Goethe said about this stance toward oneself, and have this quote of his framed on my office wall: “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”
What are some other ways students can reduce their anxieties and fears?
They involve our connections with others. When we are distressed, we have a natural desire and need to disclose our distress to others. When we roamed the ancestral plains, we would let others know what was happening so they would assist us, and we would not be left alone, isolated, and helpless. But during our shelter-in-place phase, students are physically separated from each other. To help them feel more connected and less adrift, I would recommend the following:
1) Communicate your inner experience of distress.
Whether it’s over the phone, or through Zoom, or by email or social media, reach out to someone. Bottling things up is not a good coping strategy. Even in the Zoom classroom I see that students are feeling a sense of community, especially when we share our inner responses to these new and challenging COVID-19 realities.
2) Build a schedule into your day.
Don’t let it become an amorphous kind of “What am I going to do?” kind of day. The lack of structure can lead to lots of rumination and mind wandering that’s unproductive and sometimes troubling. Try to schedule Zooming with friends, and with parents and relatives. If you feel lonely and isolated, that is a message from within telling you to reach out, and all of our research in psychology shows that social support, and feeling loved and valued, are among the best antidotes for stress. Try to structure your day and make it more like the cadence of everyday life before coronavirus.
3) Write a journal.
There are a large number of studies that look into the benefits of writing about a difficult experience. The research has found that there are immediate kinds of effects, from immunological benefits to fewer trips to the doctor, and your brain improves. Just writing 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days about what you are experiencing now has the power to get you outside yourself and help you gain perspective. It will also be quite amazing to read these thoughts 10 years from now as you look back at this moment in your life, so save what you write.
Are there any opportunities for students in this crisis?
Yes, we have to effectively cope with the dangers, but this can also be a time when we can reconnect with family members and friends we are not quarantining with, find creative ways to do good in the world, and to reflect on what is really important in life. If we do these things, we will be made better, and not be reduced, by the pandemic.
Your son is scheduled to graduate from UC Berkeley School of Law this spring, but the ceremony has been cancelled. How are you counseling him?
He is very resilient, but I have always told him that in times like these, we should all use our self-talk as a stress-buster. When things are difficult, we can say to ourselves, “OK, I really don’t like this but it’s not the end of the world.” It’s easy to get into the mindset of “everything is now ruined, and nothing will work out.” But you have to avoid that kind of thought absolutism because that kind of talk really gets you into trouble. I tell him to take action and take control, because action absorbs anxiety.
Finally, where should SCU students go if they need mental health services?
To access mental health counseling resources and stress-management apps, go to the Santa Clara University website, search for Cowell Center, and then open “Better Help” and “More SCU Mental Health Resources.”