Fight or Flight: Coping with remote learning stress

by Rudy P. Parel Jr.

Fear.

The fear of contracting COVID-19. The fear of failing a course. The fear of being left out. The fear of not graduating on time. The fear of financial constraints.

Fear is a very primal human emotion. And fear is the number one consideration of students in coping with the struggles of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic and in maintaining sound mental health.

For *Alika and *Bruno, college students from a university in the province of Laguna, financial constraints, a lack of space conducive to learning, unstable internet connection, and low motivation to study are just some of the struggles that they are experiencing in the remote learning setup.

These realities have forced these students to take drastic steps to be able to cope with their remote learning ordeal — to be able to cope with fear.

To fight or to fly? They ultimately ended up choosing to fight. But they learned, the hard way, that this end does not always justify the means.

Knife Edge

Bruno changed his profile picture on a video conferencing application into the face of an Autobot from the Transformers movie. According to him, this was an inside joke between him and his classmates because his audio is usually choppy like that of a robot.

But behind this Autobot mask lies the true face of his struggle: financial constraints and unstable internet connection.

“Alam kong magiging hassle siya [online class] pero hindi ko in-expect na ganitong hassle ‘yung dadatnan ko. Hindi ko alam na ganito pala yung mararanasan ko. I was really doing my best. Magsa-submit lang ako pero wala naman talaga akong natututunan,” he said.

(“I knew that online classes would be stressful, but I didn’t think that they would be so much of a hassle. I didn’t think that I would experience this. I was really doing my best. I was only submitting, but I wasn’t really learning anything.”)

Bruno is also a musician and he plays in a band as a side job. Before the pandemic, his band was being hired almost every week to perform in various events. He considers his work as a therapeutic activity that provides him a temporary escape from his academic requirements. He also added that it helped him improve his mental health.

However, during the pandemic, he was forced to find another way to continue to financially support himself and his family by establishing a music teaching business. This had a mental and financial impact on him because he was juggling between studying and earning a living.

“Napabayaan ko acads ko kasi nag-focus ako sa trabaho at kung paano makaka-survive,” Bruno said. (I disregarded my academics because I focused on working and surviving.”)

He also added that he temporarily stopped working on his academic requirements because he wasn’t learning anymore. This is due to remote learning challenges such as unstable internet connection, financial difficulties, and stress.

Trying to thrive in academics in the middle of uncertainties, Bruno shared that he was subjected to what he called an “act of desperation” to pass a course that he enjoyed. Due to an unstable internet connection, he was unable to attend synchronous classes, download modules, and watch lecture videos. With that, he was forced to resort to plagiarism on the final project of the course.

He received a failing grade when the act was eventually caught by his professor. Bruno added that it served as a big lesson for him.

“Kahit mahirap, ‘wag niyong gawin yung ginawa ko na kumapit sa patalim,” he said.

(“Even though it’s hard, don’t imitate what I did.”)

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures 

Alika has been experiencing stress and anxiety due to adjustment issues in the online learning setup. According to her, the change in the learning mode, from physical classes to remote learning, caused difficulties in striking a balance between working and doing personal activities.

“Alam kong nag-aaral ako, nagbabasa ako, pero walang tumatatak. I don’t understand anything,” she said.

(“I know that I am studying and reading, but there is no retention [of information]. I don’t understand anything.)

Aside from her adjustment issues, Alika has also been experiencing a lack of motivation.

She said that there was a point in time when she couldn’t look at her laptop anymore because of the stress and anxiety that she was experiencing. Because of this, she decided to completely disregard her academic requirements for a while until she felt ready. This caused her to have a lot of incomplete assignments. 

Similar to what Bruno experienced, due to her lack of motivation and depressive episodes, Alika was also forced to cheat on an exam. She did this by searching on the internet for answers while the test was being conducted in a synchronous session. 

She noted, however, that this is an act that she regretted.

“I just really wanted to pass,” she said.

Mental Health in the Time of Pandemic

CARING FOR THE SELF. Dr. Alexandra Palis, consultant psychiatrist at the UPLB University Health Service and other hospitals in Laguna, is an expert in handling student mental health.

In an interview with Dr. Alexandra Jean Palis, a consultant psychiatrist at the UPLB University Health Service, mental health was defined as the ability to utilize emotional, behavioral, and thought faculties without interfering in function, relationships, and occupational tasks.

She discussed two concepts related to mental health, which are stress and anxiety.

Stress is any disturbance of a person’s “equilibrium” and is felt when a certain event disrupts a routine that a person is accustomed to. It can also be due to frustrations that challenge the way one controls one’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. Changes in these areas affect the way an individual can handle his/her mental health.

Furthermore, anxiety manifests in the form of either physical or cognitive disturbances as the body’s way of alerting an individual of the presence of a threat.

The physical symptoms of anxiety include headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, throat discomfort or a choking sensation, chest pain, palpitations, difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, abdominal discomfort which may include flatulence, nausea or vomiting, tremulousness, paresthesias, restlessness, and body pains with no objective cause.

Lastly, Dr. Palis cited overthinking as one of the cognitive symptoms of anxiety. According to her, this is when an individual can spend much of his/her time thinking about the possible outcomes of an uncertain event or the consequences of these outcomes instead of taking care of oneself or executing necessary occupational or academic tasks. 

She also mentioned that someone with sound mental health is: able to execute proper self-care, maintain satisfying and meaningful relationships, and perform occupational or academic tasks – despite experiencing disturbances of thought and feeling.

“Note na ang pagkakaroon ng mental health is not the absence of appropriate emotional reactions to situations,” she said. 

(“Note that having mental health is not the absence of appropriate emotional reactions to situations.”)

Dr. Palis provided six tips on managing stress brought about by the remote learning setup during the pandemic.

The first tip is to keep a regular schedule. Remember to set boundaries on work schedule and have proper time management.

Second is to stay connected with one’s family and friends by spending time with them.

Third is to keep one’s body strong by strengthening one’s immune system, exercising, taking vitamins, and having a healthy diet.

Fourth is to prioritize personal hygiene. According to Dr. Palis, being able to maintain good personal hygiene is an indication that one is able to take care of himself/herself.

Fifth is to limit media consumption and to stay correctly informed. Remember to only choose the news sources that one trusts and avoid taking too much information from others’ opinions as this will also limit the energy that one spends.

The sixth and last tip is to “distract and redirect”. This is to “distract” oneself or temporarily shift one’s attention from a stressful activity to a less stressful activity from which an individual may also derive satisfaction from. Activities that may help regulate emotions and thoughts include meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, journaling, reading, art projects, cooking, gardening, and woodworking. Once people have reduced the stress they are experiencing, then they may “redirect” their attention back to the matter at hand.

Dr. Palis also advised college students to keep holding on and remember the greater purpose as to why they chose to continue pursuing higher education. Furthermore, she also added that students should not hesitate to ask for help when they need support and assistance.

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KEEP HOLDING ON. Here are practical advice given by Dr. Alexandra Jean Palis on overcoming stress and anxiety when doing remote learning.

Fighters

Despite the pandemic challenges, Alika and Bruno both claimed that they are doing better in the second semester of this school year.

In Bruno’s case, he mentioned that he has also decided to prioritize his well-being and mental health along with surviving the pandemic.

On the other hand, Alika has found a better place at home that is more conducive to learning. She has also learned to adjust to the remote learning setup and tried new activities that served as her coping mechanisms. 

Both of them learned not to push themselves too much and to keep on fighting at their own pace.

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