As a grad student adjusting to life in quarantine, I’m hearing introverts like me are supposedly thriving with mandatory social distancing. But I’m not sure all this time away from friends and sunshine, scrolling through feeds full of panic-stricken news, is great for anyone.
The pandemic has triggered a whole lot of anxiety and depression. For those of us who already contend with mental health issues, the quarantine can exacerbate the struggle.
While there’s been plenty of reporting on general tips to keep our mental health in check in the coronavirus era, I wanted to hear from someone on the front lines supporting students. We’re the ones worried about establishing a future when the future itself is uncertain.
Isaac Paul Del Rio is both a counselor at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Counseling and Psychological Services, where I go to school, and a student himself. He’s finishing his doctorate at the University of New Mexico. I asked him what he’s hearing from students and to share best practices for dealing with quarantine and social distancing with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Antonio Villaseñor-Baca: What kind of insight can you give into the cases right now? Are students struggling with the quarantine? Has the nature of your sessions changed at all?
Isaac Paul Del Rio: Very generally speaking, the client presentation has almost bifurcated. There are situations related to COVID, speaking to the loneliness that’s resulting from self isolation, and that webs into depression, anxiety, irritability. Maybe [they] lost their job, or they’re feeling bored. They’re noticing lack of motivation. They’re noticing lack of concentration, disruptions and sleeping in their day-to-day tasks, things like that. And very commonly conflict at home with whoever they are staying with. So, COVID has introduced those presentations or changes.
But the other half — not really half, but the other amount — they’re not experiencing a lot of COVID-19 stress. In fact, it might not even come up in a session. So there’s a good number who are experiencing some fears and there’s still a good number that’s not even talking about them.
AVB: What advice do you have for students who are struggling with the quarantine and, like you said, depression and anxiety? If I were one of those students, what kind of tips do you have?
IPDR: There’s quite a few. The most important one is really creating a structure in your day. So a lot of times I’ll encourage clients to plan out their days, and I’m talking about hourly, when you plan to wake up, when you go to sleep, when you plan to eat, structuring social interactions, things like that. Just regaining that sense of routine, because a large loss of functioning comes from the disruption in your daily routine. You’re thrown into this limbo, and you’re not having the reinforcement and structure of the day [that] accomplishing daily activities can provide.
Aside from that, sunlight. Getting sunlight is a big one. Research shows that getting anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of sunlight during the day increases serotonin levels. It reduces anxiety, depression, stress, and it’s just a natural mood enhancer. When people are self isolating, the most they might have is from their blue screen on their T.V. or their phone or tablet or whatever sunlight is coming in through the windows. Similar to seasonal affective disorder, lack of sunlight is only going to exacerbate symptoms of distress and loss of function. So, while there are rules in place, we ask clients: could you work on an assignment in your front yard or in the backyard?
I think obviously exercise. If you’re healthy and you know that you can do so, walking or push ups or jumping jacks or stretching or even yoga, at least for 30 minutes a day, and putting that in your structured day, has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety, but also helps you feel more resilient to bad news [and] negative events.
AVB: It’s difficult to draw a line when it comes to watching, listening to, reading news right now. Is there a recommended amount? How does this impact people, specifically your clientele and your students?
IPDR: It varies from person to person. You can set an amount of time. And that could be maybe 30 minutes to an hour, even, if you’re reading. Maybe shorter if you’re watching videos or anything like that. Once that time has expired, I would recommend that you clock out from watching the news. Consider yourself up to date and wait until the next date that you have set for yourself to be caught up.
What you want to avoid is for this to become like a checking compulsion. I mean, the two motivations that drive a tendency to check the news, would be to soothe yourself, and that might be counterintuitive given the persistent content and bad news that’s being released. The second motivation is just so that you’re not left in the dark and that you’re up to date on everything. But [if] you’re constantly checking, that’s definitely detrimental to anxiety and depression.
Thirty minutes would be good for me, an hour would be at most. It depends if you’re a news person. You might even do an hour and 20 minutes. But as long as you have that amount of time or less and then you’re stopping, you’re not checking any stories that pop up, you’ve disabled your news notification, things like that. You’re done for the day until the next day. That’s the most important part.
AVB: Is there anything else you want to add specifically for people who are struggling with the quarantine and self-isolation?
IPDR: I just have two more tips I want to throw out there. Generally, one that we are seeing is a lot of conflict at home with family and a lot of conflict with partners. And so a lot of recommendations that we give to clients is, to be able to ask for space when needed. And if it’s safe to do so, have a small fight and not completely avoid. If things are becoming abusive at home, seek out domestic violence hotlines.
Also, communicating with people outside of the home is important. A lot of people think, “Oh well, I’m not alone. I have my family or my partner.” But it’s really important that you surround yourself with other social resources too. It’s very common to become annoyed, irritated or revolted by these people. It’s very common. Knowing when to ask for space.
And then lastly, engaging in relaxing activities. Taking hot baths with Epsom salt can reduce muscle tension. There’s deep breathing apps, journaling, things like that. It’s very important that a relaxation behavior is implemented at least once in the day.
NOTE: If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
If you’re a college student seeking ways to connect and combat loneliness during the pandemic (and beyond), our friends at Hope Lab created Nod to promote student social resilience.