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SocietyApril 3, 2020

Uni students: It’s OK to not feel OK

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(Image: Getty Images)

Four PhD students engaged a clinical psychologist to help them navigate an uncertain time in their studies. They share their findings here.

As four PhD students from Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research we, like many others, can’t stop reading and talking about the unfolding events that have gripped our communities and the world in the last three months. Having this much daily distraction is not always good for productivity but, right now, that is OK. Last week we received some simple advice that we would like to pass on: the emotional reaction you are having to the crisis is normal.

From working in the disaster space, we know that this level of uncertainty can have a huge impact on both your emotions and your daily life, including your studies. So we decided to consult with Dr Maureen Mooney, a clinical psychologist with experience in humanitarian psychosocial programming and disaster response, to help us create new ways of studying.

It’s OK not to function at 100%

Being a student requires dedication, hard work and stress management, so don’t be surprised if your brain isn’t functioning clearly at the moment or if you’ve deviated from your business as usual. Trying to maintain normal studying conditions and momentum in a global crisis is something not many of us have done before. We need to be more realistic. Keeping up to date with the news, checking in on friends and family and taking extra preventative measures all take up time and physical and mental energy. We are all somewhat distracted by the current situation and that is OK. You are certainly not alone in this.

Let’s be honest, we’d all rather be catching up on Grey’s Anatomy and working on our baking skills, but we’re sorry to say it will be unlikely our studies will stop entirely. People on scholarships still have tight deadlines to meet, so pausing to wait until the crisis ends isn’t feasible. So to support and encourage students to be proactive in their studies and to protect physical and mental wellbeing, below are some (we hope) helpful tips and advice that we’ve found useful.

The emotional reaction you are having to the crisis is normal. What we choose to do next with that added stress really matters. 

Tips and tricks for creating a helpful routine

Carve space to process what is happening and its impact on you

Allow time to do this and accept that, for now, this is the new normal. It’s OK to feel anxious, sad, disoriented; we can be aware of what emotions we are feeling and then get back to our tasks. We acknowledge that this is even harder for members of our community with health concerns, disabilities, people with less means to stockpile, and the elderly.

Find a way to check out from the news for most of the day

Don’t keep the news streaming; try to decide on a time that you check it once or twice a day. Let yourself binge on news for an hour and then get back to work.

Ramp up your self-care now more than ever

Many people may have lost their self-care routines due to social distancing and self-isolation. It’s OK to grieve for these lost activities. Give yourself space to acknowledge this loss, and try to find creative ways to continue these activities. Go for a run or walk and enjoy the beauty of nature. If you’re in self-isolation, find some online fitness videos and get the heart rate up as best you can. Watch shows or movies that make you laugh or feel happy. Rediscover your favourite hobbies in the home.

Limit communications with people who make you more anxious

You don’t have to be mean, but monitor the effect they are having on your own stress levels and don’t be afraid to cut back. Other good advice we’ve found to help you manage your anxiety can be seen here at Peak-Resilience, here at BBC News and here at The Guardian.

Trying to study during a global crisis is something not many have done before (Photo: Getty Images)

Maintain your studies

To do this, you need to have a routine – this might look really different to your normal routine but the key is to find one that works and stick to it. Scheduling in some exercise is a good idea to clear out the cobwebs and put you in a headspace to get more work done.

Pace yourself

We need to learn how to work differently, and learn how to work in situations that are not ideal. The evolving nature of the situation makes things hard to plan for, so we need to be flexible and adaptable with our plans. Learning to adapt to change is a good asset to have.

Build a virtual university community

Schedule video calls with other students to chat about readings/lectures/the latest episode of whatever show you’re watching. If there isn’t one already, make a Facebook group for your class and start chats in there. Rallying around fellow students is key and helps to both boost morale and keep focus on studies.

Self-isolating? Join a community Facebook group

For example, fellow colleagues who recently travelled back from a conference trip created this Corona Virus And Chill (Kiwi Self-Isolation Network) community Facebook group. We would recommend anyone who is self-isolating completely (ie recent travellers who have been asked not to leave the house at all) in New Zealand to engage with the online group.

Keep in touch with your lecturers and supervisors

University staff are working very hard to move classes online and to find creative ways to support their students. If you’re concerned about your studies or need support in any way, please reach out to those within the university that can help you.

Get involved in the volunteer efforts

Many volunteer groups are mobilising to help deliver food and offer support to those in self-isolation. Find your local Student Volunteer Army Group via the Student Volunteer Army’s Covid-19 Response website to see how you can help.

Ashleigh Rushton, Lisa McLaren, Marion Tan and Sara Harrison are PhD candidates/post-docs at Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University in Wellington. They co-wrote this article in consultation with clinical psychologist Dr Maureen Mooney. Mooney has kindly offered to share her email address in case people are isolated and need a contact outside their immediate circle:

Keep going!