April 29, 2020
Trigger Warning: Anxiety, Stress, Mental Health
This piece is a companion to a post containing a list of work-from-home resources.
We can all say that this has been a particularly long semester for everyone at the Jackson School. We are currently living through a global coronavirus pandemic, and this has affected us directly in many ways. If the symptoms of stress and anxiety impair your ability to function, please speak to an experienced mental health professional. The UT Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) is continuing to provide services over the phone. For more information please visit:
We are among the many people having to work from home, and transition to online classes and meetings. I consider myself extremely lucky to be in the position to work from home, but the overall pandemic has taken a huge toll on my mental health. As is the case for many others within our community.
Many of us are juggling graduate student responsibilities with feeling helpless about this entire situation, financial planning, caring for family, and coping with those familiar symptoms of mental illness. Like many students at UT Austin, we have families back at home that are considered essential workers under their respective state mandate. Families we love and care for. If you are also deeply worried about what will happen with your life and your graduate progress, you are also not alone. This is a reality for everyone and it is okay to talk about it.
I struggle to answer how we can best cope with the reality and situation we are in. Here are some of the ways I keep myself going (through trial-and-error) while practicing social distancing:
1. Self-care and kindness to myself
These two are important. Decompressing is hard at the moment, but it has been central to me functioning. I do this by taking more breaks. Graduate students do not sleep much, in general, but we really can use some more sleep during stressful times. Even if it means more naps than consistent sleep. Do it. Getting sleep also helps your immune system and thinking skills.
I have had to learn how to be kinder to myself with meeting expectations that are currently not feasible. If you are like me, struggling with life in general, kindness is important. It will help you move forward rather than paralyze you. Remember, there are “good” and “bad” days—be aware of what those are and what they mean for you in these times.
2. Setting times to check in with my family
If you have family members or friends who are essential workers and you’re consistently worried about them, this is a way to ease the stress. Even a text exchange works. I know I cannot help my friends and family by being there, but this has really helped me mentally.
3. Talking to someone about my stress
Trying to get a Master’s or a PhD is already stressful enough. Talk to someone if you feel stressed beyond your control. Hiding the fact that we are struggling during a pandemic will not end well. Talking with people has really helped me get through some of my stress. Talk to someone. It really helps. Also, see above for detailed information on CMHC at UT. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
4. Look at things from a long-term perspective
I have had to drill this in my mind. Things suck right now. It will probably suck for more months to come, and the uncertainty is another mental challenge, but there will be an end to this. We will rise above this.
What about being productive? Are you thinking this as well? Me too, and I have had some success with the following:
1. Celebrate little successes; rethink your losses
I celebrate getting anything done these days. Did you manage to get up, get coffee, Zoom into class, look at papers (read them maybe?), and think about your research? That is a huge success. Did you only get to focus a little on research? Celebrate that too. There are days where the only success I have is making coffee and getting hit with another issue with family. When I feel hopeless and at loss for motivation, I aim to do one productive thing and then break off for the day. I focus on how I can continue the next day.
2. Have a new routine at home; set tomorrow’s schedule yesterday
As a first year PhD student, I thought I knew how to manage my time. I would go to my office and do what I used to do during undergrad: write down what I did during the day. This works when you already have structure in your life. We now work at home. Going to class is coming to my kitchen-now-office chair and turning on Zoom. I am now to the point where I am planning out my time by the hour, with intended break times for coffee and lunch. This is the only way that I’ve been able to get through days where I feel like I have everything to do, but nowhere to start. Planning out realistic time frames and goals has helped me, but feel free to schedule your time as loosely or as strictly as works best for you!
Hopefully, this post can help you navigate through everything we are facing. Remember, if the symptoms of stress and anxiety impair your ability to function, please speak to an experienced mental health professional. The CMHC is a good place to start–please see the beginning of this post for detailed information.
Cover image from iStock.