With an anticipated return to in-person living and studying this fall, many Barnard students are returning to campus life for the first time in over a year, bringing with them a mix of excitement and uncertainty. Some are arriving for the first time. Clinical psychologist and author Gina Davis ’07 knows this complicated swirl of emotions well: Davis’ work as a psychologist on college campuses affords her special insight on how best to maintain mental health during this pivotal transition.
Davis’ recently published book, After the Acceptance Letter: Seven Healthy Mindsets for Emotional Wellness in College, is a culmination of her research and expertise on managing mental health, serving as a resource and a guide for student readers as they navigate complex emotional and mental wellness issues throughout college.
In this Back to Barnard article, Davis shares seven helpful pieces of advice about how to deal with the anxieties that come with college life — especially during a pandemic — as well as how students can better sustain their mental health when returning to campus this fall.
If I am overwhelmed by new people, activities, and environments, what are some interactive self-reflection exercises that can reduce anxiety?
In my book, After the Acceptance Letter: Seven Healthy Mindsets for Emotional Wellness in College, I talk about my personal challenges with this very issue. When I got to Barnard, I felt like a kid in a candy store — I wanted to experience everything at once! But there are only so many hours in a day, and trying to do a million things at once quickly leads to burnout. My suggestion for overwhelm is to get really specific about what your personal values are, and choose your activities to align with them. For example, if one of your top values is wellness, you want to make sure that your day-to-day choices align with that, such as eating healthy, making time for exercise, and going to therapy. My book has a whole chapter with exercises on identifying your personal values, so be sure to check it out.
What tips do you have for best practices around time management and returning to daily in-person classes?
Go in knowing that the return to in-person classes is going to be an adjustment, and try to not to be too hard on yourself. Practice self-compassion and give yourself time to get used to your new routines. In terms of time management, look back on the skills and strategies that helped you stay disciplined and on top of your obligations earlier in life, whether that was blocking out time for work or having an accountability partner. Try to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses around time management, and plan accordingly.
How can I deal with anxiety over pandemic “gaps” in my résumé and not feel professionally or academically behind my peers?
One thing I have learned from working as a psychologist is that everyone has insecurities; everyone feels “behind” in some way or another. Over the past year and a half, most things have not gone according to plan, and that is okay. We can’t go back in time and rewrite the past, but we can focus on what we can control right now. Ask yourself what would make you feel positive, comforted, or encouraged as you transition to this next chapter? Your job, first and foremost, is to take care of yourself. Also, I predict that the majority of schools and jobs will exercise some understanding for professional or academic “gaps” during a global pandemic — at least the ones worth your time.
Why is it unhealthy to compare our quarantine experience to others, and what are some strategies to stop doing this?
Because comparison is the thief of joy! We all understand this on some level, but doing the work to reduce comparing ourselves to others isn’t always so easy. One tool you can use is mindfulness, which is the practice of being fully present with what is happening right now. Mindfulness can enable us to recognize when we’re having distorted or unhelpful thoughts in relation to our quarantine experience, take a pause, and come up with a healthier, alternative thought instead. Check out a blog post I wrote about challenging distorted thinking using a tool called thought records — it even includes a free thought record template.
How can I cope with the time lost from the college experience in a healthy way?
First, It’s important to feel your feelings and try not to judge yourself for having them. If you’re angry, sad, scared, grieving, don’t fight that. Your feelings are valid. Try to sit with them until they pass, and they will pass. Next, I would identify what experiences you feel you missed out on specifically, and see how you can re-create them now, perhaps in a different way that you might have initially imagined. For example, if you missed out on being a first-year student on a college campus, you can still create the experiences of meeting lots of new people, checking out student activities, and exploring the city. Lastly, remember you still have many years ahead to have lots of amazing, memorable experiences after Barnard. The college years can be great, but don’t lose sight of the fact that your adult life is just beginning.
What are productive ways to navigate pre-pandemic relationships, where friend groups and interests may have shifted during quarantine?
A lesson I think we all learn over and over again in life is that it’s okay for relationships to change. The friends that were perfect for you at age 15 might not fit so well at 20 or 25, and that’s not always a bad thing. A friendship doesn’t have to last a lifetime to have been meaningful or worthwhile. I think the practice of radical acceptance could be applied here: Trust that people will come in and out of your life, and try not to cling to things that you’ve outgrown or are no longer a good fit for you. Also, keep in mind that people change and grow a lot during the college years in particular, and changes with friendships naturally come along with that.
What should I know about how to advocate for my mental health on campus, and where can I go if I need counseling?
Barnard has the Rosemary Furman Counseling Center, which is a fantastic resource for students. In my book, I talk about how to get therapy on your parents’ health insurance plan — you’re usually covered as long as you’re under [age] 26 — share free mental health resources, including hotlines, and discuss the current online therapy platforms available. I also provide strategies for shopping around for a therapist. The most important thing to remember when you’re struggling with your mental health is that your biggest responsibility is to reach out for help. When you’re feeling bad, it’s easy to isolate — maybe your brain is telling you that suffering in silence is the only option — but in this case, you actually want to do the opposite of what your brain is telling you! Talk to someone and let them know how you’re feeling: a professor, your advisor, a friend, your RA, or even a hotline. At Barnard, there are so many people around who want to help you. Reaching out and asking for help is the first step.
— SOLBY LIM ’22 & ISABELLA PECHATY ’23
For more resources, visit the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being, Barnard’s new centralized hub for all wellness-related initiatives across campus. The Francine LeFrak Center supports the entire College community with a 360-degree perspective of personal well-being: physical, mental, and financial.