Mental Health Guidance for Graduate Students during COVID-19 – Therapist Guest Post

By Dr. Tyia Grange Isaacson. Dr. Grange Isaacson is a training and supervising analyst with a private practice in Berkeley, California and via telehealth.  She has a subspecialty working with graduate students. Tyia holds a Ph.D in contemporary psychoanalysis from the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, a masters degree in Social Work from Columbia University, and a BA  from the University of Wisconsin Madison. Tyia is a Licensed clinical social worker in the States of New York and California. She is published in Psychanalytic Perspectives and her writing has been anthologized by Karnac Books.   Dr. Grange Isaacson is an internationally invited speaker and trainer on culture bound syndromes and mental health. Tyia can be reached at www.tyiagrange.com, tyiagrange@gmail.com or  via phone at (510) 343.9832.

Right now, the world is an anxious place.  Graduate students are uniquely vulnerable during this time because many students, especially the ABD population, were already operating from a connection deficit before COVID-19.  Dissertating is isolating so your emotional bank account may have already been depleted from social connections. Many students have abruptly needed to change course and many not have access to their research, their cohort or their advisors.   In this three part series of guest blog posts I will address some of the unique challenges as well as solutions for graduate students during the pandemic.  

Part I.  Self Care

While it is normal to feel more worried and scared it is also important to self-monitor your regulatory capacities so that you don’t reach a toxic stress level.  Sleep is typically the best indicator of how well we are metabolizing stress. In addition to sleep disruption you may notice:

-temporary difficulty concentrating

-irritability 

-anger

-fatigue

-stomachaches or digestive difficulties 

If these symptoms persist and your energy, sleep and eating habits remain impacted or your worry interferes with your ability to carry out daily tasks of living or if you have thoughts of self-injury or suicide, seek out immediate help at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text Got5 to 741741.

Researchers who study anxiety and those of us who work with patient suffering from anxiety have some lessons to help weather the unknown.

  -We know that not knowing what is going to happen next increases our anxiety.  An important remedy is to control what is within your power to control and schedule what will happen in your day.  

– Anxiety can be contagious. The remedy is to protect yourself from anxiety contagion by limiting incoming information from news, friends, and family that increases your own anxiety.
– Social isolation reduces our capacity to deal with stress and anxiety. The remedy is to preserve social connections. 

In sum:  Control what is within your ability to control.  Let the rest go. Structure your day to include your favorite self care techniques below and preserve connections to reduce anxiety.

As you explore this list below keep these two considerations in mind:

1.What you are already doing well?

2. What is your growing edge?

Self -Care Suggestions – Body – Mind – Connections 

  1. Body
  • Participate in Physical engagement- movement such as dance, tai chi. yoga, cardio exercises, weight bearing exercise.  This will look and feel different than when you could access a gym or in person classes but there are many online options for free. 
  • Try grounding exercise that involve relating to the earth, e.g. lying down feeling supported by earth, belly breathing, or visualizing the ground as support.
  • If possible, try walking or spending time in nature. Nature and fresh air are healing and direct sunlight (with sunscreen) gives us essential vitamin D that supports our immune system.  
  • Take movement breaks throughout your day  (movement =regulation).
  • Identify one aerobic activity to engage in three times a week. 
  • Maintain a personal hygiene and routine.  Simply showering, getting dressed and making your bed each morning can help adjust your mindset to face the day.
  1. Mind
  • Meditation practices (consider using apps if you are new to meditation)
    • Calm
    • Aura
    • Insight Timer
    • Relax Melodies
    • Headspace
  • Try visualization techniques that emphasize greater goodness, kindness, an acceptance of what is.  Visualize benevolent spirit that can understand and hold the suffering of the world 
  • Consider accessing your personal faith/religion that brings peace, joy and equilibrium
  • Especially when you can’t go outside practice visualizing being in nature or a special safe or calm place
  • Spend time placing or making reminders in your space of goodness, kindness and peace.  What art, statues, poems or pictures speak to you?
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings. (The benefits of journaling are well documented)
  • Carefully consider your media and social media use and determine what is working and what needs adjusting. 
  • Break your day into Am & PM.  Limit stimulants such as caffeine & overstimulating sources of anxiety contagion such as news and social media to the AM hours. Use PM free time to schedule soothing and self- regulating activities. 
  • When you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts simply tell yourself “stop” this breaks a pattern of thinking in your brain and disrupts negativity. 
  • Identify one integrative activity that contains both learning and discipline of mastering the rudiments and time to “play” this activity (music, sport, art/craft, games) . The best options need full attention; can cause “flow” state with is regulating. Examples include puzzles, writing, art, learning language, music, chess etc. [Karen add: PAINT BY NUMBERS! :-)]
  1. Connections
  • Beware of tendency to isolate and withdraw
  • Schedule virtual social opportunities (virtual tea/coffee, brunch\lunch\dinner, game nights, creative\arts and crafts time, bookclub, writing group or coworking)
  • Find a penpal.  Getting a letter in the mail gives you a physical object. Writing back on your own timing can protect you from social depletion required during a live give and take conversation. 
  • Practice humor and seek joy.  Instead of feeling guilty for goofing off schedule levity into your daily calendar as essential self care. 
  • Access support system of family and friends.  In our busy lives we often neglect connections.  Reach out to those with whom you have lost touch.
  • Pets – they lower blood pressure.  If you don’t have a pet do you have the resources to consider adopting one now?
  • Cultivate a gratitude practice (journal, text a friend something for which you are grateful each day).   Gratitude increase sense of abundance. It marks what you do have and reduces scarcity mentality.  
  • Try telehealth therapy.  Seek referrals through your student health center.  If you are in New York OMH Emotional Support Line: 1-844-863-9314 The Emotional Support Line is free and confidential 

After reviewing the above list determine: 

-What are activities that refuel you and allow you to be present?

-Consider enlisting a friend to be an accountability buddy and support one another in cultivating self care habits.

-Identify three activities that  replenish you, reconnect you with life, hope and wonder and help you meet each new day with fullness and potency. How often do you need to engage in these activities to help keep you “healthy” and balanced?
– What do you need to be held accountable to keep up a good self -care practice?  Once you have made this self assessment work on calendaring—scheduling self care into your daily practice.  More on this next in my next post. 

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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