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No matter how happy or positive of a person you usually are, stress can sometimes sneak up on you. “We’re all feeling some kind of stress right now; whether we know what it is or not, I think it’s there,” says Joan Lawrence, a counseling professional with over 35 years of experience and currently Program Director for South University, Austin’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.

Even with many things today being beyond our control, Lawrence and her colleague Tom Watson, Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program Director at South University, Savannah, say each of us can easily and quickly take steps to better manage our stress and mental health.

1) Maintain a healthy routine

“Try to create a new normal,” advises Watson, a licensed counselor since 2008. “Jobs, schoolwork, family – everyone is juggling a lot at the moment, but establishing a routine can help you work toward completing all of the different tasks on your plate.”

Where possible, this new routine should match your days before the pandemic – from waking up and preparing for the day as though you were leaving the house to eating healthy meals at regular hours. “You want to follow a schedule instead of randomly doing whatever comes along. Without that structure to keep us focused, we can feel a little lost,” says Lawrence.

2) Set daily goals

If you begin each day with a realistic idea of what you want to accomplish, you can reflect on your work that night and be proud of what you’ve done. Depending on your priorities, each day can have a completely different goal or you can take a step-by-step and day-by-day approach toward achieving a longer-term goal.

“Get up in the morning with your goal in mind,” suggests Lawrence. “It doesn’t have to be huge. You can clean out a closet, work on your garden or finish something for school or work. You just want to be able to feel that sense of accomplishment each evening.”

3) Seek help if you need it

Mostly over the phone and online, counselors are still working hard to help others. For example, many of our Clinical Mental Health Counseling master’s students have completed telemental health training to meet state requirements and are continuing to support clients through various counseling organizations.

“A number of organizations already offered telehealth services and others began offering it because of the current situation. All of the professional organizations are doing outreach and developing resources to help providers continue to offer a full continuum of care,” explains Watson. “I encourage any South University student who needs a little extra help to use the Student Assistance Program to connect with a licensed counselor.”

4) Prioritize sleep

College students are already known for burning the candle at both ends, but right now many people are letting their sleep schedules fall to the wayside. However, the amount of sleep you get is proven to impact your stress levels. When you’re well-rested, you’ll be more productive throughout your day and feel more calm and level-headed during difficult situations.

“It’s easy to think ‘I don’t have to go to work tomorrow, I can stay up late, sleep in and start a little later’, but, before you know it, time gets away from you,” says Watson. “You’ll feel so much better if you stick to a healthy sleep schedule.”

5) Get moving

Movement is one item both Watson and Lawrence suggest you include in your daily routine. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins that make you feel happier, so stretching and moving throughout the day is key. While exercise can be as easy as a walk around the block, those who crave something more guided can find tons of fitness videos and classes online (often at no cost). From bodyweight workouts to dance to yoga, there’s something for everyone, and just 30 minutes of movement can help you feel more energized during the day and sleep easier at night.

6) Soak up the sun

Stepping into the outdoors for some fresh air can be an instant mood booster. “Sunshine is good medicine,” Lawrence reminds us. “It doesn’t fix everything but it certainly makes us feel better.”

Breaks are important during your work or study time, and going for a walk can be an excellent way to clear your head. For those spending their days with roommates or family members, a walk also offers the perfect opportunity for alone time.

7) Live in the moment

Worrying about the future can be taxing, whereas paying attention to the present is a proven means of combatting stress. “Take one day at a time,” says Watson. “If you are able to focus fully on what you’re doing that day and what is happening in each moment, rather than on what might happen tomorrow or next week, that will really help.”

8) Maintain connection

When seeing friends and family members in-person or close contact is off the table, text messages, phone calls and video chats are still a great way to reach out. “It’s essential that we do what we can to check on other people and let them check on us,” Lawrence says. “That’s especially meaningful right now. We all have a need to be connected to other people.”

9) Do things you enjoy

Make time for yourself - ideally at least an hour - during your day. “This will help you feel like you manage your schedule, instead of your schedule managing you,” says Watson.

You can use that time to relax – perhaps with a good book or movie – or to explore a new hobby you can do from home. Now could be your chance to try something you’ve always been interested in but simply never got around to doing.

10) Practice gratitude

If you look, you can always find things for which to be grateful. Perhaps it’s spending more time outside or with family. Maybe it’s reconnecting virtually with people who live far away. For others, it might be learning new skills and exploring your interests – something Lawrence has noticed among her students. “Some students can’t wait to get back to the office to see clients, but others have really liked working in telemental health,” she says. “I think this experience has changed how some of them want to operate going forward.”

It may seem small, but reflecting daily on what you’re thankful for can have a big impact on your mood and outlook, so go ahead and give it a try. As for us, we’re thankful for every professional in the physical and mental healthcare fields and – of course – for the hard work and unwavering commitment to education and growth shown by the entire South University community!