UVA Law Psychologist Offers Advice on Life During Social Distancing

Says Maintaining Routines, Managing Stress Are Keys to Wellness
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April 7, 2020

Students can cope with coronavirus-related disruptions by maintaining routines as much as possible, a psychologist at the University of Virginia School of Law advises. 

Dr. Kate Gibson, with UVA’s Counseling & Psychological Services, said students should also practice healthy wellness habits, do what they can to feel more connected and manage their stress rather than try to eradicate it. 

She talked to UVA Law about steps students can take to better adapt to an age of social distancing and virtual learning.  

What are your recommendations to students who may be feeling unease at being away from their normal school environment? 

One helpful response to the uncertainty and disorientation of this remarkably unusual time is to focus more on what we can control and to take steps to exert that control. Creating and implementing daily routines that fit for you is a great way to do that. Keep as much as possible to the same class, study and personal schedules as you were doing when attending class in person. A great suggestion from a 1L is to spread your classes throughout the week to even out the busyness of each day. Feeling productive and on top of things is another way to feel in control.  

Regardless of the specifics of your schedule, it is important to start the day off right. I recommend that people do their morning routine as they would if they were leaving home — get up at a similar time, shower, exercise (if that is part of your morning routine), get dressed and have breakfast. “Attend” your classes and “go to the library” as you would in your typical day and keep your night and bedtime routines as well. By doing this, you will ground yourself and tell your mind and body that this is not “off time.”  

If you can get outside, think about doing it in the morning. Morning sunshine has even more positive impact on our day and our circadian rhythms than getting outside later in the day.  

As well as planning for class and study time, it is best to attend to the same healthy life balance activities as always. Taking care of yourself physically is important: Eat regular and healthy meals; exercise (there are lots of great free online workouts to help with this, even ones designed for inside if going out is not possible); and get plenty of sleep. Make time for connection and socialization as best you can: We need this more than ever as we are more physically isolated. Build in meaningful and fun activities — this can be particularly helpful at the end of the day, so that you can reset and wind down before sleeping. Think about having a different schedule of activities on the weekend to mimic regular life.  

How can students cope with feelings of isolation? 

We are wired to want and need connection: to feel more grounded and less stressed, to have fun, to help process our thoughts and feelings, to share in each others’ lives etc. There is strong research support for the mental and physical health benefits of being connected and the detriments if we feel alone. This all takes on extra meaning and difficulty as we are limiting our in-person connections. As we are all adjusting to this, it pays to be more conscious of who we want to connect with and how we do that. We are all in different situations. Some people may be with their parents, roommates, friends, partners or children, and so have some access to in-person interactions during the day. Some people may be by themselves and physically isolated.   

The best response is to work to connect and feel connected. In addition to one-time get-togethers, think about scheduling regular contacts with some of your friends to create routine and give yourself events to look forward to.   

There are other, less-direct ways to feel connected. Doing something kind for someone else can serve the dual purpose of helping you feel more connected to others as well as helping them. Send a supportive or caring message to someone to let them know you’re thinking of them. Another option is to connect through thoughts and memories. Looking at pictures of people you are fond of can lead to feelings of caring and closeness. Lastly, sharing humor with each other, and those heartfelt pictures or GIFs of puppies and kittens activates hormones that help us to feel comforted and happier. 

What are some ways to cope with stress and anxiety? 

In some ways, increased stress, anxiety, sadness and fear associated with this pandemic are our new normal. The goal is not to be anxiety-free but rather to feel that you can cope with the stress.   

Know that this new emotional reality does not mean there is something wrong with you. It does not feel good to feel upset or anxious, yet accepting this as the temporary norm will help you avoid the pitfall of “being upset that you’re upset.” You may also find yourself quickly shifting feelings: being fine and then hit with a wave of anxiety or sadness. This is also is expectable and normal. Roll with it as best you can and use all the tools available to you. 

Consider how to make space for and register your full range of feelings. You might set aside times to feel sadness, fear and grief. At other times, you may consciously engage in activities that are meaningful or enjoyable, for example, talking to someone you love or walking your dog on a beautiful spring day.  

It is also helpful to try to engage with activities that are important to you and bring yourself back to them when you notice yourself having shifted away from them into anxiety or stress. This reinforces that life can continue to be meaningful despite the pandemic.  

As with everything else in life, keeping physically healthy is an important component of coping with stress and anxiety. Sleep, healthy eating and exercise give you more resources to manage stress and cope better (and, in fact, some research indicates that lessened sleep on its own might increase anxious symptoms).  

Finally, try to minimize doing activities that heighten your anxiety. I recommend only checking news updates once or twice a day and having “quiet” periods like class time, meals or studying when you aren’t checking social media or your messages every few minutes. (You may let your friends and family know you’ll be doing this if they might worry).   

Are there any other resources for dealing with anxiety or stress? 

There are many resources for students dealing with stress, including ones that predated the pandemic and others that people are creating every day in response to it. Among the categories of tools are physical tools that ground us in our senses and slow our body down, mindfulness tools to work on acceptance and tools to help with modulating thoughts and behaviors.  

One helpful place to start is the Counseling & Psychological Services website. There are links to range of resources under the COVID-19 Resources button there. One resource there is Silvercloud a program where you can learn and practice helpful mental health tools. There are also links to various mental health apps. These resources are being updated so please keep checking in.  

UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center is hosting free online drop-in classes for yoga and mindfulness. Similar community resources (often free) are also available. 

I also want to highlight a few simple yet powerful techniques. A way to slow your body — and then often your mind — is deep breathing. Deep breathing sends physiological messages to activate your relaxed system rather than your fight/flight one. Another series of techniques involves focusing on one or more senses to help ground yourself in the present moment rather than any feared future. Essential oils, soothing music and pressing your feet against the floor while seated, and experiencing the resulting sensations, are some examples.  

What tips do you have for students to stay focused when they take online classes? 

Many students I have talked to are having difficulties with focusing on classes or readings with the shift to online courses. Some suggestions for mitigating this are: 

  • Make your learning environment as comfortable and low-distraction as possible. 
  • Acknowledge and accept that it will be harder to pay attention and school might take longer, then figure out how to have your schedule reflect this. Many find it helpful to take more breaks or split up their time differently than they did for in-person classes. 
  • Try to listen to recorded lectures in real time rather than stopping and rewinding frequently so you can sustain the flow of the lecture.  
  • Do your best to connect to the meaning of the material for yourself. The more meaning you can attach to the material, the more easily you will learn it, recall it and make use of it in the long-term. 
  • Engage in active listening to lectures and in active reading of assignments. Active learning means engaging with the material in efforts to understand and evaluate the material.  
  • Consider study or discussion groups for classes and readings. You might have a group meet right after lecture to reinforce the material, clarify confusion and otherwise actively learn. You may also want to continue with more traditional study groups as you begin preparing for finals.   

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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