We Are Not Alone

The impact on the mind of studying within the same four walls

The advent of summer after the first lockdown in 2020 saw the lakes in and around Berlin become party destinations. It became very clear that, despite growing up with the Internet, generation Z also lives its life beyond the virtual world. For this digital generation, meeting up with friends is an essential part of life. Coping alone with the new problems of everyday life, with the challenges of studying and fears of not being able to cope with the weekly seminar workload is one of the biggest challenges the pandemic poses for students at TU Berlin. A challenge made all the greater by having so few people to talk to. Mechthild Rolfes and Robert Peters from TU Berlin’s Psychological Counseling discuss how students deal with the pandemic and provide psychotherapeutic tips for coping with moments of loneliness.

Top 5 - five tips for the exam period

  1. Spend 3 hours really concentrating on studying rather than 10 hours studying off and on
  2. Make sure that you have some exercise and take time for the nice things in life
  3. Prepare for oral exams by speaking and for written exams by writing
  4. Try to simulate exam conditions when preparing
  5. Take deep breaths to deal with anxiety

Have you seen an increase in the number of students seeking psychological counseling since the outbreak of the pandemic compared with previous years?

Robert Peters: Surprisingly enough, the number of inquiries actually declined significantly initially during the first lockdown. Many students were probably learning to cope alone and busy organizing everything from home. Another reason might be that we were forced to switch to an online counseling service. Be that as it may, we have observed a significant increase in inquiries since the start of winter semester 2020/2021. We have seen that the problems students face run deeper more often than before and that there is a greater risk of illness. More students are slipping into depression.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for students who moved to Berlin for their studies to make friends and start a new life in a strange city. Even the most communicative have very few possibilities to make contacts. Then there is the difficulty of old friends visiting or returning home for a time. Things have turned out very different than anticipated. Sometimes, we can help just by talking to people in these situations, discussing the difficulties they face and thinking about possible options for positive change.

Mechthild Rolfes: The situation is even harder for our international students. They find themselves in a foreign country and may have had no chance to meet their classmates yet. There are fewer jobs available for these students, some of whom really need to work, and they have to get used to a new university system. This represents an enormous challenge. International students also have the added problem of having to demonstrate progress in their studies to qualify for visas. The current situation makes this even harder. They are faced with the threat of deportation, which doesn’t help matters.

What advice do you give students who feel that their daily lives are getting to be too much?

Mechthild Rolfes: Anyone who notices that they are unable to deal with their problems alone or with help from friends and family should talk to us. What often happens is that students retreat into themselves and it takes them time to reach out to us. Experience generally shows that the sooner a person seeks support, the easier it is to find solutions. It is particularly important at the moment that people take good care of themselves. This is why we encourage students to turn to us whenever they need help.

You offer help with stress, the feeling of being overwhelmed, exam nerves, difficulties with studying, relationship problems, anxiety and depression. Which problems have you seen the most since the coronavirus began?

Robert Peters: The most common problem is depression. This was also the case before the coronavirus. But we have seen an increase in depression as a result of the restricted options for exercise and movement, fear for loved ones and anxiety about the future, professional or otherwise. Hygiene protocols and protective measures also require students to continuously adapt to a new situation. This makes them anxious and restricts their daily lives.

Mechthild Rolfes: Being able to plan effectively can help students in these times. Knowing when, where and in what format an exam will take place can help maintain motivation over a longer period of time. Being able to plan further into the future and having the information to do so are important.

What advice do you have for coping with exams?

Robert Peters: Getting outdoors during the exam period! Physical activity as a way to relax helps you concentrate more on your studies the following day.

Mechthild Rolfes: Nerves and even panic are more common in the run up to exams. We get a lot of inquiries from students taking exams for the third time. This is their last chance and everything depends on their passing. During counseling, we discuss different options for coping with stress. Currently, exams may be taken without counting as an attempt; this takes the pressure off.

What do you think will be the longterm impacts of the pandemic? Will things return to how they were before? Or will students continue to feel the effects of suddenly switching to a digital semester and the lockdown and closure of the campus?

Robert Peters: Research still doesn’t have the answers to this as it is such a long time since we were confronted with a global pandemic on this scale. I think there are chances for people to make up the experiences they missed out on. Lonely hearts might be quicker to find their soulmates at semester parties in the future. But for some, it will take longer to process the fears that developed during the pandemic. Some students probably took too long to take their problems seriously and there were perhaps too few appointments available for psychotherapeutic counseling. Delaying help often results in a longer period of treatment.

Psychologists talk about robustness and vulnerability. The vulnerability hypothesis argues that if I have problems three times, I will become more vulnerable each time. The robustness hypothesis by contrast contends that “What doesn’t kill me makes me strong.” I think we also learn to appreciate our achievements, such as giving concerts, more. Special moments, such as skating with friends in the winter sun, create memories which we can look back on over the years and enjoy. They help us not to give up.

Mechthild Rolfes: Digital counseling has also helped us to increase our offers. We can now advise people no matter where they are in the world. Some people who come to us find digital formats easier. Travel times are eliminated, and some students feel more comfortable with a digital consulting room. We will also continue to offer our services in a hybrid format after the coronavirus.

Interviewer: Christina Camier

Further information

Psychological Counseling provides a number of tips on its website to help you cope with daily life during the coronavirus pandemic. If these tips don’t prove useful, then this is a clear sign that you should talk - either to friends or family or seek professional help. If you cannot cope alone, then reach out to others!

Organization name I E - Academic Advising Service