The past year has been incredibly challenging, and January 2021 data from the CDC found that 39% percent of American adults are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Students have had to balance the increased demands of everyday life with the stresses of school. During times like this, we all must utilize tips and tricks to manage stress and protect mental health.
That’s why we reached out to Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University who teaches Coursera’s online course The Science of Well-Being.
We recently spoke with Dr. Santos over email to discover her advice for online students trying to avoid burnout while thriving in their studies.
These are her four science-backed stress management strategies for online students:
Strategy #1: Self-compassion
Q: What advice do you have for students who may be feeling a lot of stress?
A: “My first piece of advice is to just allow yourself some self-compassion. Start by recognizing you’re living through a challenging, unprecedented time that impacts you in nearly all aspects of life, including learning and productivity.
I’ve seen some of my own graduate and Ph.D. students feel like they should be as productive as before, but this isn’t realistic. We are in the midst of a pandemic, where everyone is stressed, and even if we feel motivated one day, we could be impacted deeply the next day and unable to work. All of us are a little less productive than usual, so give yourself the same self-compassion you would give a friend going through the same thing.
A lot of people are feeling stressed and having trouble managing it, so you’re not alone. Show yourself some compassion and downgrade your expectations a little bit to reduce the stress you may be putting on yourself.”
Strategy #2: Breathing exercises
Q: Do you have any strategies for managing stress when students are feeling overwhelmed?
A: “Whenever you feel stressed, refocus yourself on what you need to do to protect your own mental health needs. A big part of this is explicitly taking time to pay attention to your anxiety levels and see how you can manage these feelings.
An exercise I like to do when I’m feeling stressed is to give myself a break for three conscious breaths. These are three very slow breaths, where you focus on breathing into your belly and being present. This helps down-regulate your sympathetic nervous system and kick in the parasympathetic activity that allows you to rest. The more you can take these short breaks to refocus yourself, the more powerful it is.”
Strategy #3: Meditation
Q: We’ve heard that meditation can be helpful. Do you have any recommendations for someone just starting out?
A: “Meditation can do wonders for your all-around well-being. One of my favorites is Metta meditation, which is a specific kind of meditation that’s focused on loving-kindness. With this practice, you think about different people in your life and wish them well by using the mantra, ‘May you be happy, may you be healthy.’
Research suggests that this simple act of extending love and kindness through meditation can allow you to feel compassion. It’s great to do one of these meditations, even for just five minutes in the morning because it can help you build resilience and protect you from burnout later on.”
Strategy #4: Sticking to a routine
Q: The pandemic has added a lot of stress to our lives. What can students do to reduce its impact?
A: “We, as humans, are creatures of habit. That means we work best and feel less anxious when we’re on a consistent schedule and routine. The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on our daily routines as many of us adjusted to working and learning from home. Typical routines that used to signal the end of a day, such as commuting or leaving school, have been eliminated, blurring the lines between work and our personal lives.
To combat this, I recommend creating and sticking to a consistent schedule, such as eating breakfast and starting school work at the same time. I also encourage you to come up with a specific routine that signals the end of the work or school day for yourself. This could be going for a brief walk or moving your laptop to a different location once you’ve finished for the day. It doesn’t really matter what this action or task is as long as you set a consistent schedule and routine for yourself and stick with it.”
We are living through challenging times, but these tips from Dr. Santos can help you healthily manage your stress. To learn more about science-backed strategies to increase your happiness and build more productive habits, check out her free online course, The Science of Well-Being, on Coursera.