Almost every day since mid-March, I’ve felt overwhelmed with anxiety and exhaustion. Will my family members — many of whom have underlying health issues — contract COVID-19? How will I maintain my mental health while social distancing and losing many of the activities that brought me joy, let alone complete assignments and attend classes? How will I continue to afford essentials now that I cannot work due to social distancing measures? At the time, these feelings were validated as my professors emphasized that anything we could do was good enough given our circumstances — whether that be participating in class or simply getting out of bed that day.
Now, this validation has mostly come to a screeching halt.
I still feel incredibly anxious and often struggle to complete basic tasks like making my bed and taking out the trash, but I’m also drowning in schoolwork. On top of that, I have to deal with stringent attendance and assignment policies posed by professors despite the fact that COVID-19 continues to pose a public health threat and social distancing measures are still in place in New York. Rather than keeping the pandemic in mind, many of my professors emphasize that we need to continue life normally. In almost all of my classes, professors expect students to attend Zoom lectures regardless of time zones and complete multiple assignments each day. While trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in this way might be helpful for some, ignoring the fact that we’re living through a pandemic can lead to more anxiety and invalidate the trauma that living through a pandemic inflicts.
I already struggle with anxiety and depression, so of course the pandemic has amplified these feelings. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that pandemics can cause fear and anxiety to increase drastically in all populations no matter what their mental health was like before the pandemic. Scientists have also found that global crises — like the current pandemic — can cause traumatic stress, regardless of whether you or someone close to you is directly affected. This traumatic stress can cause intense anxiety as well as depression and disruptions in sleeping and eating habits.
Accepting and sitting with your feelings without judgment is essential to working through traumatic stress. This might look different for everyone, but for me, it looks like giving myself grace when my brain is racing so much that I cannot focus on the hundreds of pages of readings my professors have assigned. But giving myself permission to feel this way without judgment — which is already an incredibly difficult task — feels impossible when the people in charge of my grades offer little flexibility with attendance and deadlines. I want to be able to feel my feelings so that I can work through them, but the emphasis on continuing with the semester as usual from my professors gives me little choice but to try to push those feelings to the side so I can pass my classes.
I understand that sticking to a routine and maintaining normalcy can be helpful for dealing with traumatic stress. However, trying to carry on with life as usual can make trauma worse if doing so means that you cannot stop to lend compassion to yourself. How can I work through my anxiety enough to even try to stick to a routine if I don’t give myself space to acknowledge that the anxiety is a valid response to what I’m living through? If I expect myself to not struggle with anxiety right now, I’m only going to feel more frustrated when these feelings inevitably resurface.
There is a fine line between sticking to a routine in a healthy way and forcing a routine at the expense of your feelings. It would make it easier to accept my feelings without judgment if more of my professors simply acknowledged that this is a trying and anxiety-provoking time. It’s important that professors allow some leeway for assignments and attendance instead of expecting their students to perform like nothing’s wrong. This is not a normal time, and trying to pretend that it is doesn’t allow space for the self-compassion necessary to manage the traumatic stress that comes hand-in-hand with living through a pandemic.
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Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]