#TellUsTigers: Alumna Satterthwaite on academic stress and ‘devoting 15 minutes a day to your happiness’

April 26, 2021 noon

Amanda Satterthwaite, a 2010 Princeton graduate and a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who has been immersed in the mental and emotional side effects people are experiencing during the pandemic, offers her personal and professional suggestions for easy ways that students and others can prioritize what she calls “mental fitness” in this moment.

Amanda Satterthwaite, a 2010 Princeton graduate, knows a thing or two about the stress that comes at the end of the semester.

Amanda Satterthwaite

"One thing that I learned at Princeton that I really cherish now is how to fail and get right back up and finish the race. When you’re in it right now, you can’t appreciate that perspective," said Amanda Satterthwaite, a 2010 alumna and psychiatrist.

A psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Satterthwaite completed her combined residency in internal medicine and psychiatry at the height of the pandemic at Tulane University School of Medicine — including a stint in the intensive care unit of the VA hospital in New Orleans, which was packed with COVID-19 patients. But she said nothing compares to the pressure of her undergraduate years.

“I have been through medical school, residency training and 10 post-graduation years that included some pretty stressful times. And none of it compares to the stress that I experienced as a student at Princeton,” she said. “I can't tell you how many other Princetonians I've met, and when I've opened up about my struggles as a student at Princeton, they mirrored my exact feelings and how difficult it was, stress-wise.”

But there’s a definitive upside that she wants current students — now in the home stretch of an exceedingly difficult, challenging year — to know.

"One thing that I learned at Princeton that I really cherish now is how to fail and get right back up and finish the race,” she said. “When you're in it right now, you can't appreciate that perspective. I want to tell students: 'You will make it through, and you will cherish this stressful experience for the rest of your life, because nothing after you graduate will pose a challenge that you cannot defeat.'”

Satterthwaite said her parents, both Princeton alumni, were her “best friends” during her undergraduate years. “They had their own struggles as minority students in the 1970s.” When things got tough, she called them back home in Dallas.

Despite getting all A’s in high school, Satterthwaite said that when she arrived at Princeton as a pre-med student, she fell prey to imposter syndrome, which compounded her stress. One semester her sophomore year, she was struggling in her chemistry courses and got three failing grades on one day. She packed up a suitcase with all her clothes and got on the train to Newark Airport.

“I was going to take a one-way flight back to Dallas. I got all the way to the airport and I called my dad and he said, ‘Amanda, you can do it. I want you to take the train back to Princeton and finish the race.’" And she did.

When she arrived back at Forbes College, she confided in “Miss Sally” —  Sally Kornegay, a beloved Campus Dining staff member who worked for the University for 25 years before retiring about five years ago. “She baked me a sweet potato pie, and I ate the pie alone in my room,” Satterthwaite said.

She graduated and went on to attend Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

“I have become a physician, which I always wanted to become,” she said. “And I have had success after Princeton that I thought that I wouldn't be able to achieve while I was at Princeton. It's all about perspective.”


Miranda Allegar

Miranda Allegar, Class of 2021

"When I found myself back home last March, I mourned the time I had lost at Princeton, not only to the pandemic, but to my mental health. ... I left home this past fall semester to live with friends, letting myself prioritize my mental health in a way that felt like some small reclaiming of my agency over my isolation. This change couldn’t shake the feeling entirely, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made with the help of my #PrincetonU community."

Read Miranda’s #TellUsTigers story here.


To students: ‘Reconnect with the outdoors, devote 15 minutes a day to your happiness’

Satterthwaite, who has been immersed in the mental and emotional side effects people from all walks of life are experiencing during the pandemic, said she understands the unique experience of Princeton students who are entering “crunch time” with their academic work, on top of being isolated in their rooms and learning remotely. Many of her patients have either suffered and survived the trauma of having COVID-19, or are struggling with anxiety, stress and depression through more than a year of isolation and lack of human connection.

There are tactics she relies on every day in her work that she suggests can be very helpful to students, including simple things they can do to help themselves and their friends. She calls this “mental fitness.”

“What I have learned about mental health in this pandemic, not only from treating people with mental disorders, but also from my own struggles and thinking back on my time at Princeton is that you have to work towards mental fitness,” she said. “There has to be a specific time and effort put towards regaining your mental balance.”

To start, Satterthwaite advocates creating intentional ways to shift your perspective.

“Princeton students put a lot of pressure on themselves and in the pandemic, isolated in their rooms, they may feel they're not doing the best that they could do, or they're not meeting their own expectations or the expectations that they feel that others have put on them,” she said.

She extols the power of spending just 15 minutes a day outdoors — separate from what she calls operational time, such as walking to the library to study or going to the dining hall to eat. And being outdoors near water? Even better.

“I love to recommend the calming effects of just being by a body of water,” Satterthwaite said. “I would say to students, walk down to Carnegie Lake and just sit by the water. Shut off your phone. Disconnect yourself from any social media, the news, any people contacting you. Disconnect completely. Stare at the water, look at the colors, hear the sounds of the environment, smell the smells of your surroundings.”

She calls this a kind of beginning meditation. “It’s a practice for resetting your mind. We think that we are being idle in these periods. But it’s actually very healthy.”

She said this can also work as a “meditation walk.”

“I can think of some of my most stressful days at Princeton, but when I was walking on campus, I would suddenly look up and say, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place.’ So, I say, take a ‘meditation walk’ for 15 minutes. Walk at a good, comfortable, brisk pace. Note your thoughts and then note your environment. And when you have negative thoughts, you challenge those thoughts in the moment when you're walking. The meditation part of it is really concentrating on your surrounding environment and trying not to think about all your worries. It can really help out,” she said.

Satterthwaite uses this kind of walk in her own life. “Sometimes when I'm super anxious, it's difficult for me to sit down and ground myself, so that's when I'll go on a long walk. And while I’m walking, I'll think about all my worries and everything that is stressing me out, and then I question myself and all my disastrous and catastrophic thoughts. I say to myself, maybe what I'm thinking is not the only perspective. Maybe there's a different side to the story. That’s how you gain a new perspective.”

She continued: “As a woman in my 30s, I call this 'Self-care Sundays’ but for students, I would say, ‘devote 15 minutes a day to your happiness.’”


Allen Liu

Allen Liu, a member of the Class of 2022 and head of the Undergraduate Student Government's Mental Health Task Force

"In a semester when loneliness and burnout are more present than ever, we must all be here for each other — whether we're a friend who can help process a difficult situation, a family member who listens without judgment, or a professor who understands the challenges of being a student this year and adapts. Our community's well-being depends on it.”

Read Allen’s #TellUsTigers story here.


Even indoors, ‘spark happy moments’

Satterthwaite’s 15-minute rule can also work in your room — with a very easy visualization technique she recommends to her patients as an instant de-stressor.

“I tell people, close your eyes and think of one of your happiest moments. Who was with you? What were you doing? Maybe it was an activity or a hobby. Think of the type of weather, the environment. Maybe it was by the beach, anywhere. And then, after you have noted those things, you can jot them down and think about how you can recreate that environment or put little reminders of that in your daily life,” she said.

She recommends creating a visual memento of that place — if it was at the beach, you might put a photo of the beach on your wall or keep a shell in your room. And if there’s a particular person who is a part of that happy moment, a friend or family member, she said, “Reach out to them. Send them a text or call them.”

She said it’s especially important to “spark happy moments” when you’re living alone, as students are.

Satterthwaite said there is something else all of us, including students, can learn from solitude during the pandemic. “It's good to get to know yourself for who you are when you're alone. You can use this time to learn mental health tactics and relaxation tactics that you can use throughout your entire life. This is the best time to experiment and learn to reset yourself.”


Sarah Marie Bruno

Sarah Marie Bruno, a graduate student in physics who served as health and life chair of the Graduate Student Government for three years

"I became passionate about mental health advocacy because I saw a real need for it. Too often, people like me suffer alone when loving support might be just down the hall. ... I still have days when I feel as though I don’t belong here, and I still need my peer support network. Taking care of my mental health is an active, continuous priority. I think healing often comes from connection and connections form when we share our stories with one another.”

Read Sarah Marie’s #TellUsTigers story here.


Create ‘active human connection’

Satterthwaite remembers that as a Princeton student, “the one thing that got me through was that I was struggling with other people who were struggling. It wasn't just me. I can remember studying with my classmates, walking back to my dorm at 2 a.m. with my classmates. The fact that Princeton students don't have that at this time is the most concerning thing. But to leave the dorm room while staying socially distanced is probably one of the most important things that they need to do,” she said.

Even when you don’t feel like reaching out to a friend, that is actually the best time to do that.

“Reaching out to a friend to get a socially distanced coffee or something like that, is really important and can help you get a different perspective from your own,” Satterthwaite said. “When you're talking to a friend, be honest about some things you may be struggling with, because more often than not that person has had similar struggles or can help you through that time. Asking them how they're feeling as well is very important.”

Even reaching out to just one person who you are comfortable with can make a world of difference.

“This is active human connection, as opposed to passive connection, which we find with social media,” she said. “We may feel connected to people through social media, but it's not an active connection and it's not personal. To reconnect is what we need to do.”

Zoom does not count as active human connection. “I think that it's very fatiguing to be on a Zoom call with five other people and to do all these things that we think is increasing connection, but it's also contributing to internet fatigue,” she said.

A tiny dose of wisdom: ‘This too shall pass’

Satterthwaite also recommends acknowledging the transitory nature of time — just like her father did for her whenever she struggled as a student. She remembers a quote that she always kept at the forefront of her mind throughout her time at Princeton: “This too shall pass."

A silver lining of the pandemic Satterthwaite sees is a societal shift away from the stigma of mental illness towards prioritizing mental wellness.

“The pandemic has made us realize that we can all be under stress, and have anxiety, and have some depression, and it's okay because that's actually normal. It's normal to have fluctuations in our mood,” she said.

She continued: “The pandemic has made us aware that we should tend to our mental health. I hope that our society can really embrace promoting a healthy mental state. I hope that we can continue to increase awareness. And I hope that we can continue to make treatment for mental health and behavioral health more widely accepted and accessible.” She said the rise in telemedicine as a way to access counseling during the pandemic is an example of how technology can help make mental healthcare more accessible.

“This is a good opportunity for us to frame how we see ourselves, how we see mental health, how we interact with each other, for years to come.”

Editor's note: If you need help with an urgent mental health matter, call University Health Services at 609-258-3141 and you will be scheduled for a same-day urgent care appointment. You may also call if you have a concern about someone else on campus. On-call counselors are available at any time, not just during business hours. A comprehensive list of resources for undergraduates and graduate students is available here.