Campus counselor offers tips on dealing with quarantine stress

The Nittany Lion standing next to Nittany Lion Shrine

Students now under self-quarantine due to COVID-19 should take a cue from the Nittany Lion mascot, and make some time to get outside for some fresh air and exercise, as well as a break away from being indoors and overly connected.

Credit: Shannon Williams

DUNMORE, Pa. — Just because students are currently learning remotely and not on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn't mean they don't need to utilize campus services.  

To that end, Katherine Stefanelli, campus counselor, has created alternate ways to make sure students have all the counseling and wellness services they may need right now, all in the comfort of their own homes.

Typically, students would visit her in her office in the Hawk Student Success Center, or perhaps take advantage of an on-campus wellness or meditation session or activity offered during the noontime free hour.

However, with those in-person opportunities no longer available, Stefanelli has taken to online venues to ensure students can still have access to her usual counseling and meditation sessions.

Her YouTube channel, under her name, Katherine Stefanelli, offers students all the major themes for adjusting to new routines, as well as tips to positively cope with the stress and overwhelming changes they are experiencing right now.

According to Stefanelli, there are five themes emerging in students as they adjust to the "new normal."

Creating a routine — Students are dealing with establishing a new routine and trying to keep work time and downtime separated. These lines can blur, creating a sense of chaos. It is best to set aside time for work, which is separate from downtime, to maintain predictability and structure. A great way to tackle the extra stress is by creating a sense of well-being.

When faced with uncertainty and stress, our bodies produce an abundance of the stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. Over time, a chronic stream of these hormones can heighten the risk of depression, anxiety, and even heart disease.

Stefanelli explains that “by implementing a modality such as meditation, yoga, mindful practices, or exercise, we not only aid in the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are associated with more positive moods, we also may help lower cortisol levels. We might also try reading for pleasure, keeping a journal, or getting outdoors for a walk or hike alone or with our favorite four-pawed friend!”

Resetting the circadian rhythm — “All of us, including students, may have a hard time sleeping these days,” said Stefanelli. “While part of that may be due to some general worry, some of it may actually be a disruption in the natural rhythm of the bodies, which control alertness and sleepiness.”

A good way to help reset the rhythm in our bodies and help our brains understand daytime from nighttime by getting some sun, or daylight during natural times, she said.

Go for a walk, maintaining social distancing, and wearing masks if needed; sit outside in our own backyards; engage in physical exercise; and build the bulk of work into daytime hours. As night falls, we can help our bodies understand it is downtime by putting work away, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, and turning off screens at least 30 minutes prior to sleep, said Stefanelli.

Organization and planning — According to Stefanelli, to assist in time management and avoid procrastination, "some students who abandoned their daily planners are now pulling them back out.” Creating a daily and weekly to-do list is helpful to stay on top of assignments and also helps to foster a sense of control in this time where feelings of a lack of control can be unsettling.

Focus on what can be controlled in times of uncertainty — and time is one of those things. Stefanilli suggests that students set small daily goals for work completion and check them off as they are completed. This can add to a sense of completion and accomplishment. Don’t forget to book breaks into your schedule and do something to boost serotonin such as a small walk or meditation, she added.

A break from media — “Students — and all of us really — can become quickly overwhelmed with the amount of information and misinformation that is out there in the media,” Stefanelli explained. “Depending on the source, we run the risk of a constant bombardment of doom if we cannot pull ourselves away.”

It is best to get a daily dose of credible and reliable information about safety, regulations, and breaking news and then be able to put it away, she said. Strive for that balance between having enough current knowledge to keep us safe, and feeling overwhelmed.

Loneliness — Stefanelli said it is important to remember that social distancing does not mean social isolation. Keeping in regular contact with friends and family via ZOOM, FaceTime, and group chats is not only a healthy way to cope, but can be fun too. Remember that the way we talk to ourselves in times of uncertainty is very important as well, she added.

"When we tell ourselves, 'I can’t handle this' or 'I can’t stay on track' this kind of negative self-talk can help to reinforce negative beliefs and attitudes, so re-framing how we talk to ourselves can be a very healthy supplement to a daily routine. We might catch ourselves saying these things internally and change them to something like, 'this can be overwhelming, but I am doing the best I can to keep me and my family safe,'" she said.

“Some people are actually finding that they are feeling less stress than they did prior to the quarantine, and some people have been reported feeling less depressed or anxious,” Stefanelli said. In such cases, it is helpful to take note on what is helping to create this sense of improved coping.

Reasons might include a reduction in over-commitment, a reduction in feeling overwhelmed about having to be “100 places at once,” or it may be that we are taking note of self-care and finding time to engage in such self-preservation. Whatever it is, if it’s making you feeling better, concentrate on how this might translate into your daily life when the quarantine regulations end, said Stefanelli.

And, she added, if you find yourself feeling overly stressed, anxious or depressed, be sure to seek out help. Stefanelli is still available for counseling sessions, or can help students get whatever help they need — they only need to reach out.

For more information on meditation or to set up an appointment with counseling services, email Stefanelli at [email protected].