• Abigail Hall

'Outsourced' amid coronavirus: Professional advice on different coping techniques, stress management

Originally published by OU Daily, April 30, 2020.

In January 2019, The Daily began “Outsourced” — a column discussing health and relationships, featuring advice and resources from OU’s Gender + Equality Center, Goddard Health Center and more. 

In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected all communities in varying emotional, mental and physical ways, The Daily has decided to bring back "Outsourced" with advice from professionals and community leaders about staying safe and healthy while living in quarantine. 

For this column, The Daily asked Katie Qualls Fay, a certified health education specialist and health educator for OU Health Services, to write about tools for coping with stress while in quarantine: 

Stress management is the most requested presentation from OU Health Services’ health promotion department. From August 2019 to March 2020, we delivered over 40 presentations to campus organizations, classes for first-year students, graduate student cohorts and special interest groups.

According to data from the latest National College Health Assessment, over 34 percent of college students across the U.S. report that stress negatively impacts their academic performance. It’s too early to know the large-scale impact stress during this time will have on academic performance, but the need for stress management skills is more important now than ever.

Most students can identify healthy and unhealthy coping techniques. During presentations, students quickly mention that binge-drinking is an unhealthy coping behavior while getting enough sleep is a healthy one. But what happens when stress becomes so overwhelming or so out of our control? In addition to sorting healthy versus unhealthy coping techniques, we encourage students to consider problem-focused coping versus emotion-focused coping as well. 

Problem-focused coping

A 2012 study in the American Journal of Health Studies used the Health Belief Model to examine college students' stress management techniques and coping. The study defines the goal of problem-focused coping as removing or reducing stressors by seeking information and instrumental help, planning and attempting direct action. 

Problem-focused coping is an important first step when stressors are within your control, and you have the power to change a scenario. In the fall semester when OU Health Services gives presentations, we ask students how they manage and balance all the things they have going on. 

Fall at OU looks like a lot of campus organization involvements, scholarship deadlines, work obligations, parties, football games, etc. A busy schedule can be stressful for many students, but most of it can be managed through proper time management skills, boundary setting, time limits on apps like Netflix or TikTok, and asking for help. 

Asking your roommate to help with the dishes or using Grubhub to order your food for pickup can keep you from being stressed when you’re short on time. Another problem-focused coping technique we recommend: saying "no."

Even though we aren’t juggling the usual busyness of spring events, it’s still important to remove or reduce stressors by practicing time management, planning for assignments or projects, limiting procrastination and asking for help.

Some problem-focused coping scenarios during quarantine:

  • Stressed about constant news alerts on your phone? Delete the apps, or only check them once a day.

  • Stressed about going to the grocery store? Ask your roommate if you can alternate trips, or try a grocery delivery service. 

'Outsourced' amid coronavirus: How to take care of health, safety in quarantine when home may not be safe

Emotion-focused coping

Emotion-focused coping techniques are more important now than ever. Emotion-focused coping is a stress management route to take when problems are beyond your control, and stressors cannot be removed. The goal of this coping technique is to minimize the emotional distress triggered by a stressful event, according to the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine

Thankfully, students use these techniques often. According to the 2012 Health Belief Model study, the top three most common techniques college students used to manage acute stress were listening to music, trying to see the bigger picture and talking to someone to vent. 

Other ideas of emotion-focused coping include mindfulness, meditation, prayer, humor, exercise, breathing, stretching and even crying. 

The caveat to emotion-focused coping is that it’s easy for some techniques to become unhealthy. For example, avoidance is a technique that can minimize emotional distress. Avoiding constant news surrounding the pandemic is a healthy practice, but avoiding checking your email inbox might elicit more stress. Taking time to exercise before or after a stressful exam is perfectly healthy (and encouraged), but using exercise to avoid studying is not. Other unhealthy emotion-focused coping behaviors include self-blame, disengagement, increased substance use and isolation. 

As much as we wish we could remove your stressors or provide a simple recipe for stress alleviation, we hope this summary of coping strategies will help sort the stressors that arise in your day. If you are experiencing chronic and overwhelming stress, we recommend making an appointment with the University Counseling Center. (Therapy is both a problem and emotion-focused technique!) 

  • University Counseling Center: 405-325-2911

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Editor’s note: This guest column was edited for clarity and style. 

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