Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or psychologist or professional coach, the following blog post is based on my experiences of the last semester and previous crises and is inspired by my yoga teacher training and practice. Anyone who feels at risk of having depression or burn out should take these signs seriously and seek professional help, e.g. your GP or a specialised therapist.
Feeling the attention span of an amoeba? Bad mood? No appetite or binge eating while video streaming? No motivation to get out of bed or off the couch? Since March at the latest, the whole world has been in the grip of the Corona pandemic. While at first we may have thought it would pass soon and may have even enjoyed spending more time at home, now in January 2021 we are still at home and there seems to be no end in sight anytime soon.
In the following, I want to discuss some methods and strategies for dealing with the mental challenges of Corona. This collection arose from a rather gloomy mood and from actively dealing and reading on this topic (some resources are linked below). I thought about what has helped me through times of crisis, recently or previously and wrote some points down. The motivation to share these rather private thoughts publicly are several conversations with students and their requests for pieces of advice. I hope you find some of the points below useful.
Acknowledgement: The most important step is to accept that there is a crisis and that it is doing something to you. Whether you lose a loved one, go through a break up or suffer under social distancing. Then you can start thinking how you deal with the crisis, one step at the time.
Be gentle with yourself and take your time: Whatever the crisis is, it is completely normal to be affected by it. It’s okay to be less motivated, it’s okay to do nothing for a day, you are okay. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. It really takes effort to overcome low points. It’s a process that always includes setbacks. You need to learn to accept these. If one day is bad, there is always another day which might be better. And taking time for yourself (selfcare) is a great strategy to cope with emotional stress and any moments of high pressure.
Don’t compare yourself to your social media bubble: Social media can have a negative influence when you feel low. For example during this pandemic social media can give you the impression that everyone else is doing great (look at my new hobby!) or incredibly productive (yeah, just finished the book I started during quarantine!). It’s only human that people communicate publicly rather about achievements than failures or sad feelings (“Main achievement for today: got out of bed”. So try not to compare yourself to others and avoid building up exaggerated expectations. This will only put extra pressure on yourself.
Into the Great Wide Open: Get some fresh air and go for a walk if possible (keep safe!), even if it’s just half an hour. When you for your walk when it’s light outside, it is extra healthy (and less scary). Some swear by a morning walk to kick start their day, as if you were going to work or university. But any other moment of the day will do, lunchtime, or even almost midnight (as one of my neighbours prefers, for me it’s just too spooky). Still, I sometimes really have to kick myself outside the door especially on a bad weather day, but, I never regret it!
Try meditation & mindfulness: These great techniques are not just for esoterics, they really help to increase focus and concentration. Admittedly, they can seem a bit intimidating and also are not so easy to learn (I still regularly doze off during meditation). Maybe you can join forces with like-minded people and form/join an (online) group? Or just start writing down a gratitude list each day (like three thinks you are thankful for) or take some time to breathe deeply each day. There are great resources to guide you on this path on the internet, like apps, recordings, texts…
Give yoga a chance: If meditation & mindfulness are too much for you, you can try yoga. A regular yoga practice also contributes greatly to your mental balance and it also keeps you flexible and fit. If you are new to yoga and start without guidance by a yoga teacher, take special care and search videos with “yoga for beginners” on Youtube. Some great online teachers are “Yoga with Adriene (Youtube)” or “Mady Morisson (Youtube)”, both have clear instruction videos for many levels. Even if you don’t fall completely for yoga, try searching videos for yoga for back pain or even chair yoga (yoga you can do in your normal clothes at your desk).
Any movement will do: If you don’t like walking or even running (not me!) outside too much, maybe you can cycle? Or do some exercises at home? I love from time to time doing Low Impact Workouts on Youtube (the ones without any jumping that makes your neighbours angry, but still make you sweat like hell). Some have (bought) a treadmill or other form of hometrainer (and sometimes workout during webinars or video streaming) others dance around freestyle at home. Whatever and whenever you do your daily movement, just do it. Already a few minutes will make a difference even and after a while you might crave for it.
Embrace new or old hobbies: Spending much time at home can become rather boring or lonely, especially during the pandemic. Is there anything you can take on to cope with the crisis situation? Reading, writing a diary/gratitude journal, painting, singing, making videos, etc.? Don’t get me wrong, this should not be a pressure, but a pleasure.
Have a Staycation: Many of us are stuck day in day out in our homes. In homes that are often now also our work spaces and it is really hard to relax and to detach yourself from work. As there is not so much travelling going on during the pandemic, no chance for a holiday and change of place. During Christmas Break therefore I had a “staycation”, which I celebrated as a yoga retreat. What did that mean? I made a schedule for three days of yoga (searched and bookmarked nice yoga sequences in advance), bought a lot of healthy food in advance, didn’t look into my email, used the internet only to watch yoga videos, and had a walk each day and read three crime novels (I am a very fast reader when it comes to fiction). If you don’t like yoga, you can do something else of course, maybe do a geographical themed staycation (like in Italy, where you eat pasta and pizza and watch Italian movies) or just some days of spa.
Keep body and brain well nourished: Try to eat as healthy as possible (fruits, vegetables, good nutrients). I often feel a huge difference in my mood between crappy eating days and good eating days. If you don’t like to cook everyday or cannot cook everyday, you can also pre-cook your meals and store them in the fridge. Admittedly, I am a lazy cook, so I often cook a big amount of my warm meal for the week on Sunday and warm up smaller portions of it during the week. It helps that I love soups and “loads of veggies with rice in one pan” kind of meals. Another idea is to make a weekly meal plan. With a plan you are less stressed out with deciding what to eat and can buy the ingredients in advance, so you don’t have to go to the supermarket so often (I try to avoid all indoors besides my own house at the moment). Drink loads of water, your brain (and skin) will love it! Bananas are great study snacks (they even have been recommended to me as a perfect snack before scary tasks (like giving a presentation or an interview). Try to moderate alcohol as it often makes people even more anxious and is a bad sleeping aid.
Have a meaningful start of the day: A meaningful morning routine will help you get started, e. g. try to get up at the same time, dress up and get ready for the day, even when you don’t leave the house and really don’t feel like it because you are only participating in video meetings.
Schedule your day: Decide on your most important tasks for the next day the evenening before, so you are not tempted to procrastinate on planning your day in the morning. Designate special time slots for bigger tasks, e. g. read an article, make an outline for an essay, answer that very complicated e-mail… Also put in your schedule time buffers for smaller tasks and time to catch on tasks that took longer than expected. Plan the hardest tasks for your best time of the day.
Include Me-Time in your schedule: What do you need for yourself to get through a day? Try to include in your time table and/or to-do list activities that help you cope with the crisis and contribute to your positive mental state, e. g. “have a walk”. Don’t forget to put these daily well being activities in your schedule.
Get enough sleep: You feel totally drained after a very full day, but instead of going to bed you spent hours on meaningless activities like scrolling through Social Media or streaming because you are too tired to do anything meaningfull? When I read about the term “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination” as a way of trying to regain controll in life by refusing to sleep early (German Article, English Article) for the first time, I immediatly thought, that kind of explains this rather unhealty habit. So what can you do? Like having a meaningful start of the day, try to also have a meaningful end of the day and get your necessary amount of sleep, some people do need 8 hours and that is okay! I try have a very regular schedule, like getting up at 7 and going to sleep at midnight, and I set a timer on my phone that limits my youtube time to one hour each day and a timer that transforms my whole phone into black and white after 22:00 (look for settings screen time and settings for nightly wind down).
Divide bigger tasks in smaller chunks: If I have to accomplish larger tasks while feeling low on energy and motivation, it helps to set a timer for smaller chunks of time (pomodori method), for me 55 min. work the best, others work with 25 min or 45 min slots. Some people also love to divide bigger tasks into many small subtasks and tick them off a to-do list.
Be flexible: Even though routines and schedules can work wonders, sometimes it is just not your day. Then you can try to adapt your schedule or move around tasks. Writing that paragraph/chapter really doesn’t work? Have a meaningful break (go for a walk, clean the fridge, call a friend…) and try anew. Still not working? Can you do something else that needs less creativity, e.g. research or format your bibliography, write an email, check your footnotes etc.? If you are really stuck, it might be a sign, to really do nothing for a change, for half a day or even a whole day. Remember, every day is different.
With a little help from my friends: Social interaction is good, but it is okay to prefer solitude, especially if you are rather introverted. However, it is very important to ask for help if you need it. From your friends, family, teachers or a coach… Only if people know that you are struggling, they can help you, give you space, or whatever you need at this moment. Sometimes just having a safe person you can talk to about what afflicts you at the moment (think about it as “releasing steam”) may make a huge difference. Alternatively, you can also “release steam” in a diary. Or talk with a professional on a helpline.
“News timeouts”: Reading the news makes me really anxious during these troublesome times. This doesn’t mean that you should not read the news at all (it’s good to be an informed citizen), but a temporary time out for news (including social media channels!) during the time I need to work on important tasks (study, write, etc.) and as well before bedtime often does wonders for my concentration and sleep.
Optimize your workplace: Last but not least, especially during this pandemic, but I think this goes for all times, wherever you are studying or working, try to optimise your workplace. Even if it only means that you tidy up your desk in the morning and make your bed. But there is more. Maybe it is worth buying earplugs or trying white or brown noise (or music you like) because your neighbour is very noisy? Can you organize a large computer monitor that you can connect to your laptop to destress your eyes and neck? Even a 10 Euro headset may greatly advance your possibilities to participate in video conferences, at least with sound ;-). Do you feel more engaged reading on paper? Then print out some of the digital documents and scribble away (of course you can also do this digitally). Last but not least, a good desk lighting also does wonders (try eBay marketplace etc.).
Unfortunately, there is no one-fits-all-advice. What works for one person, may not work for the other. What may have worked for me, may not work for you. Every person deals with crises differently. Everyone has a different background, personality and environment. Everyone has to make the best of the situation for themselves. And yes, trust me, I am having really bad days, too. But some of these strategies have helped me a lot when I was feeling very low and could not focus on my studies or work because everything just seemed falling apart.
Thank you so much for reading, I hope you find some of these strategies helpful. Already writing them down has improved my mood a tiny bit and helped me to gather the energy to hop on my yoga mat.
What helps you? Please share in the comments below or tweet to me @UWuttke
- WHO: “#HealthyAtHome – Physical activity”
- WHO: “#HealthyAtHome – Mental health”
- Kopzeile: “gefragt: Wenn der Zwang zum Aufstehen fehlt”
- MPI für Psychiatrie: “Psychisch gesund bleiben während Social Distancing, Quarantäne und Ausgangsbeschränkungen auf Grund des Corona-Virus – Verhaltenstherapeutische Interventionen in einem Kurzprogramm zur Selbstanwendung” (PDF)
- JISC: “Beyond the technology: student’s view – responding to COVID-19” (Podcast)
- The Thesis Whisperer
- The Research Whisperer