On the week commencing March 23th 2020, almost every university in the UK will have ceased all in-person activity as a strategy to reduce the spread of the Covid-19. This measure has been coupled with the ‘UK Lock-down’, with significant restrictions on public movement to maximise social distancing. While these are the right moves to make, it can mean challenging times, especially for those whose work may not naturally involve engaging with team-mates or office colleagues as a part of day-to-day activity. For masters students and PhD researchers, the past few weeks represent a significant change in routine, amid wider uncertainty about how this global societal behavioural change has affected their research. WISDOM is aware that this represents a stressful and uncertain time for everyone and has designed this guide to provide assurance and assistance to UK postgraduate students. This blog post has two parts. The first section will address the (very natural) anxiety around the current circumstances, and provide assurances that students will not be penalised for circumstances outside their control, such as the loss of resources due to Covid-19. The second part takes a pragmatic approach: a mental health resource pack, which will hopefully be of use to those seeking resources for anxiety and other mental health concerns, and to improve their mental well-being.
Part 1A: These are incredibly challenging times. It is natural to feel overwhelmed.
We are dealing with an unprecedented challenge as both members of the public and as researchers. Many of us will have had our schedules altered, whether that means lectures and teachers schedules, and/or facing research projects that have now been cancelled. With the pressure to work and be social at home, it is normal to experience feelings of uncertainty (and an element of cabin fever!). For master students questioning how they will be assessed, rest assured that university course leaders are working full-time on this issue, and do not wish to penalise students for these exceptional circumstances. The UK government response and Royal Holloway’s communications confirm that you will be granted qualifications, so your work to date is and will remain valuable. For all post-graduate students, a key part of any dissertation we produce will note the impact of Covid-19, which will be recognised by any examining panel.
A key piece of advice to those feeling overwhelmed and/or panicked is to remember what you can and cannot control. You cannot control what has been cancelled necessarily – but you can adapt research projects, and your routine to ensure you are well-prepared to face both academic and personal tasks.
Lastly, for some of us, the demands on our time will go well beyond academic concerns. Caring for vulnerable friends and family, taking on childcare due to school/nursery closures, and the pressure to adapt routines and research to remote-only structures will consume our energy. Acknowledge this, and be prepared to give yourself time and/or an outlet for your self-care. Likewise, if you know of colleagues that may be feeling overwhelmed, and you feel able to assist, check in on them to see if they need any support.
Part 1B: You do not need to be productive at this very moment. It is okay to look after yourself.
This is not business as normal, and it is okay if you can’t concentrate. You do not need to be replacing your commute time with additional work, new skills, or ‘side-hustles’ . Conversely, you do not need to spend all your time reading about Covid-19, beyond what information is useful to help you plan your schedule. Post-graduates all over the world have been struggling to transition to a work environment which is either typically very isolated and/or punctuated by distractions in the home, and it is normal to not immediately settle into a routine. It is important to give yourself time to rest and adapt before being able to approach your work with a healthy mindset.
If you are struggling with concentration when trying to approach research:
- Try the five-minute rule. Whatever the task is, tell yourself you will try it for five minutes. If you don’t get into the swing of things, you’ve still achieved something, and can swap to another task (to try again another time). On the other hand, you may be into the task after five minutes – congratulations!
- Free-write: Frustrated that you can’t get started, or staring at a blank page? Be strict with yourself in setting a 5 minutes timer and practising freewriting, putting down anything at all that relates to your topic. For example, you may give yourself the theme ‘Why is my dissertation topic interesting?
- The Pomodoro method: Work for 25, rest for 5. When you know you only need to concentrate for 25 minutes, you can get a surprising amount done! For the 25 minutes, mute any notifications on your phone, and any risk of email notifications. This works particularly well if you are trying to write.
As above, if these methods don’t work, don’t use this to power self-destructive thoughts. There are more important things than academia at this time, so any amount of work is still productive. If you grow concerned over time that you are at risk of jeopardizing either your health, research, or other key parts of your life, know that you can reach out to your academic contacts (e.g. your supervisor/advisor).
Part 2: Practical Steps to look after your mental health
It is important for postgraduates to be aware that any anxiety you may be feeling is entirely rational, and any stress is entirely valid. Understanding how and why these reactions are presenting is useful in terms of contextualising emotions and then learning how to face current circumstances. Being aware of your emotions and triggers can help you focus on the activities that will improve your mental health – for example, replace scrolling through news updates with preparing a meal, or going for a walk.
- Anxiety: Mind has excellent resources on understanding and addressing anxiety.
- Stress: Global health organisations have already communicated the expected rise in stress across populations as a rational response to the current situation. While not all stress is necessarily negative, all-consuming or overwhelming, stress can cause physical effects and be highly unpleasant for those affected. Once again, Mind is an excellent resource-base on approaching stress. As post-graduates, be aware that there are resources available to help you manage your stress, and focus on the elements in your control. Adjusting your timelines where possible, or adapting your methods to circumvent current challenges (for example, moving from face-to-face interviews to skype calls), can help conserve physical and mental energy.
For post-graduates, the lack of an externally-imposed routine is both a blessing and a curse. If you’re like me, it is simultaneously an opportunity to prioritise the tasks I enjoy doing – which unfortunately often don’t correlate to my most pressing research priorities – and an opportunity to end up with a highly irregular routine. Nonetheless, a regular routine is a central part of sustainable self-care, offering yourself the predictability and stability to get along with daily tasks. Developing a routine that helps you prioritise and distribute your time can be extremely beneficial.
- Research suggests it takes just over two months to build a habit to second-nature status, so don’t be discouraged if things are hard at first – and don’t be discouraged if not every day goes to plan. If you can stick to a start-time, or morning routine, for over a week, each part of your routine is likely to get easier over time. Weekly planners can help you map out your time into hourly segments which may help you manage multiple parts of your research/studies
- Several blogs can advise you on building up routines. This one contains specific tips on working from home, while this one advises on how to tailor your routine to minimise procrastination.
- Relatedly, do not underestimate the importance of getting dressed, showering, and daily grooming that may help mentally prepare you for a productive day. Following the same logic as dressing in smart clothes for a telephone interview, taking time on your hygiene and clothing helps has been shown to improve employee self-perception. This psychological trick may help you feel more confident approaching your tasks, and help you shift into a productive work mindset. Bad news – staying in last night’s pajamas may lead to a lack of motivation, due to the negative connotations associated as explained by a business psychologist here. A change of clothes (author’s note: even if this does mean a change to an equally comfortable outfit) can help you associate this action as part of a routine to settle into productive work.
The below suggestions are for times you may feel overwhelmed by your workload or the reality of the situation our society is facing. Spending 5 minutes on some of these could provide the bridge you need to get through to the next task on your list, or to simply reach the next part of your day with less anxiety:
- 5-4-3-2-1 technique: this three-minute exercise can help you ground yourself through your senses and can be useful in times where you may feel panic. The technique forces you to consciously acknowledge five things you see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Write: For some, writing out your thoughts can help you process, and let go of, worrying thoughts. In this case, having a journal (or word document), that you can tuck away (or minimise) when not in use, may be of use. This does potentially have a secondary, albeit peripheral, benefit. More factual notes on your thoughts around your research and the impact of current events will likely contribute to any dissertation you will provide.
- Creative self-care activity. If you like to draw, sew or create – now is the time to engage in an activity that brings you joy and feels therapeutic. It may even be listening to music or re-watching a series on netflix. Be mindful during self-care and distinguish between active relaxation, where you’re able to immerse yourself genuinely in a relaxing activity, rather than passive viewing (watching Netflix while scrolling on your phone, and checking the news, with a research word document open in one of 15 tabs…. ).
- Meditation and Mindfulness: Taking some time for quiet mindfulness practice can help increase sense of wellbeing over time. Calm and Headspace are both apps that offer a number of freely accessible meditation videos, while a quick search for related terms on Youtube brings up hundreds of hours of resources. For beginners, do not worry if meditative calm does not come easily. If this happens, practice counting breaths and focusing on an external sound instead, and do not be frustrated if you cannot clear your mind – simply return another time. Meditation does take practice, but does pay off long-term.
- Take time for other activities that bring you peace. For example, for many of us, reading any content that isn’t the news may be a relief in itself. Reading for leisure (rather than your research!) offers the chance to ‘check-out’ of your current environment. (Scribd has offered it’s entire ebook and audiobook library for free for a month, no card details required: https://www.scribd.com/readfree)
- In the UK we are currently able to leave the house once a day to exercise. A walk, run or cycle can do wonders – not only in terms of a change in scenery, but also in helping get some movement and breeze into your routine. Whether scheduled in the morning, as a break between tasks, or as a way to mark the end of the working research day, getting outside can assist with any anxiety due to confinement, or repetitive tasks within the home. If you can get to a green space, even better. Here’s Thoreau’s take on the benefits of walking (audiobook – 44 mins).
- One work-from-home recommended routine involves doing a minimum-5 minute walk outside before returning and settling into work, in order to create a morning transition between ‘home’ and ‘work’ environments.
A significant number of studies have highlighted how physical exercise can help alleviate mental health. While gyms may be closed, there are still ample opportunities to stay healthy. Exercise also provides a way to break up the monotony of a work-day, and home-workouts can be scheduled into work breaks to give your mind a rest. If it’s a day where you are feeling anxious and can’t work, exercise can also help you reach a (justified!) sense of accomplishment – completing a workout is something to be proud of. Yet another benefit to exercise can be the increased quantity and quality of sleep.
There are a number of free/affordable online exercise routines that are available to help you work out from your home: Youtube has an excellent selection of workout videos, while several fitness instructors are running live classes. We have listed a selection of non-exhaustive resources below.
- Strava is one of many free running apps (RunKeeper, Map My Run and so on) that enables you to set yourself goals, track your activity over time, and connect and encourage your contacts if you wish.*
- Free workout videos https://www.fitnessblender.com/videos
- The Nike mobile app has a series of free workouts built-in: https://www.nike.com/nike-app
- Yoga (donation based) live – the instructor shares their screen for several classes a week https://www.yehyoga.com/classes/
- Tango (donation based) – solo or couple dances welcome to join https://www.tanguito.co.uk/live
*Yes, I know, there are privacy concerns about using some apps (see Strava in 2018). The author has made the personal judgement that the benefits outweigh the costs given the current circumstances – and advises you to use the apps you are most comfortable with.
- Social distancing does not mean social disengagement. Especially as students who may now be working predominantly from home, reaching out to friends and work colleagues can make a huge difference to your wellbeing. Scheduling calls with a friend can help – remembering to discuss all the valid parts of your lives that don’t revolve around Covid-19. Perhaps a mental note to discuss topics positive and unrelated to current circumstances, or a ‘5 minute rule’, where after 5 minutes (or an agreed amount of time) you move on to talking about topics distinct from the pandemic (What are you spending your time doing? Are there hobbies you would like to explore? What interesting TV, books, unrelated news have you come across that might be good to share?)
- Find your community. There are a number of ways that communication with the academic community can help you. Arranging a regular catchup with your PhD or dissertation advisor can help keep you assured, and accountable, about your academic work. Consider daily or frequent calls with coursemates or fellow PhD students to discuss how things are going, and talk through life. This can become a welcome part of routine, and also provide reassurance that you are not alone in the post-graduate home-working struggle!
- Twitter may also be a way to engage with other academics online, both sharing achievements and frustrations. We recommend users be wary that this doesn’t end up being another source of procrastination or anxiety.
- If you think your mental health has declined to the extent you may be a danger to yourself or others, don’t hesitate to reach out to NHS on 111 (non-emergency) or 999 (emergency), or the contacts listed by Royal Holloway, including calling/ messaging the London Nightline (staffed by University of London students) or the Samaritans.
A few last points:
- Don’t forget healthy eating: A key part of your mental well-being will be the food you eat. This ties in with routine – try to eat a balanced diet at regular intervals, even if you don’t feel like it initially. Remember to drink enough water.
- Don’t over-read the news: The World Health Organisation advises you to read as much as is useful for you – keeping up to date on potential restrictions and closures, for example. Do not over-consume information as this will only heighten your anxiety around aspects of the news you cannot control. If you are contributing to social-distancing / isolation, and staying safe, then you are doing your part.
- Lastly – as always, don’t stockpile food. All the evidence, including corroborated, independent research, suggests that UK supply chains are stable. Please do not make life harder for the more vulnerable members of our society by hoarding.
WISDOM is there for all members of the InfoSec & Maths postgraduate community. Please let us know if there are any questions you have during this time, or if there are particular kinds of content you would like to see on the blog / our social media posts in the future.
Amy Ertan, PhD student