UCSB Doctoral Candidate Studies Mental Health Amid the Pandemic

What Helps Reduce Anxiety and Stress? Self-Compassion. What Doesn’t? Venting.

Credit: UCSB

Feeling anxious? Depressed? Stressed? Have difficulty concentrating? If so, you have plenty of company. Five months deep into America’s pandemic slide, the cracks in our mental health are showing. Margaret Boyer knows this well.

A doctoral candidate in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, she recently completed her dissertation project on how people were coping in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a survey of mostly Californians from March 18 to April 15, she found significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

“More than 20 percent of participants reported at least moderate depressive symptoms, 36 percent reported at least moderate anxiety symptoms, and 32 percent reported at least moderate stress levels,” Boyer said. “It’s really no joke in terms of mental health outcomes.”


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Boyer acknowledged the country is in a different place than it was in March and April, when the pandemic was beginning to ravage urban areas like New York and force lockdowns around the U.S. But with more than 160,000 dead and a record-breaking number of cases being reported nearly every day, our stress levels remain high.

That brings us to the questions so many ask: What can we do about it? What actually works? Boyer suggested “positive framing,” which she defined as “focusing on the small, good parts of a bad situation to try to see it in a more positive light. That was actually associated with less depression and stress for participants in my study.”

Another winning strategy is seeking emotional support, Boyer said. Leaning on loved ones for comfort and understanding was related to greater well-being and lower loneliness. Self-compassion is particularly important, according to Boyer. “It’s a pretty difficult one to get good at,” she said, “but it’s about relating to yourself in a way that has the same amount of understanding and care that you would give to somebody else that you love.”

What doesn’t work: venting. “Venting as a strategy was actually associated with lower well-being and greater stress for people in my sample. So it’s clear that the way that we use other people for our emotional support is important. It’s about seeking comfort and understanding over bouncing my negative emotions off of them as well.” Additionally, “behavioral disengagement,” or just giving up on trying to deal with your problems, is associated with greater depression and anxiety.

“So if I had to kind of sum up all of that in a sentence,” Boyer said, “it would be: Don’t give up; disengaging is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Reach out to others for emotional support, not just advice or venting. When good things happen, notice those good things, and really start to practice being compassionate to yourself. That last part specifically can be really difficult, but it’s also really powerful.”

If you’ve tried to deal with your anxiety or depression and don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, Boyer suggests it’s a good time to seek professional support. “One silver lining of all of this is that therapists are getting really good at tele-mental health and providing services online,” she said. “I just like to say to people, ‘If you’ve never been in therapy before, now’s a good time to try it out.’”

An extended version of the article is published at news.ucsb.edu.


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