Tuesday 14 April 2020

It's a Common Feeling (And That's Fine!): Coping With Stress During Lockdown

Alessio shares his experience as a graduate student and psychologist, offering some hints to students about maintaining mental and physical well-being during the COVID-19 lockdown

- Alessio Bellato

I personally remember being very stressed out during my MSc course. And although you might have already developed your own set of techniques to cope with anxiety and stress, it is important to remember that experiencing anxiety and fluctuations in mood is very common amongst students at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. One reason for that is the fact that our world is often telling us that life should be happy all the time. We see our friends posting beautiful pictures from amazing places, and lots of successful people who can manage a brilliant career and have a healthy and exciting lifestyle. Unfortunately, however. because social media depicts the highlight reels of our lives, it’s easy to forget that everyone has good days and bad days; no one’s life is picture perfect all the time. 

That’s why I think it’s important to consider how many times you have been trying to compare the ‘outside’ of other people (what you see) with your ‘inside’ (what you feel). Some emotions, including anxiety or unhappiness, are usually masked under a smile or an ‘apparently’ successful life, and we treat this as if it’s a normal facet of the human experience. But what if, the next time someone asks you, ‘How are you?’, you take 3 seconds to really think about it? What if, instead of engaging in performative happiness, you respond with sincerity? This opens up an opportunity for you to acknowledge that you might be struggling a bit today or that you feel anxious and presents an opportunity for the other person to help you. This can be especially beneficial if you’re speaking with a friend or someone you trust!  

Secondly, whenever you feel you’re experiencing anxiety or stress, you can also try to cope by finding a safe space (your bed or sofa, a café, a bench in the park, etc.) and focusing your mind for a couple of minutes on yourself. No thinking about your next assignment or exam, no thinking about others or their expectations of you, just focus on you, your body, your breath and the place where you are. This can be helpful because, unlike many other strategies, it’s not a “one size fits all” approach; you can personalize this moment of mindfulness to address the elements which are causing your specific stress. 

To further the effectiveness of this exercise, I would also advise that you try writing down the three things that are causing you stress and anxiety. Even if you feel like they’re silly, if it matters to you, it’s important! So, start by writing it down. You can use a bullet-point list, and then assign to each of these a weight: how bad, on a scale of 1-10, do these three things make me feel? You can then contrast these with a second list and write down the 3 things that are making you happy right now and rate them from 1-10 as well, according to a personal scale of ‘how happy do these things make me?’ Once you’ve done this, you can connect the dots, matching up a source of anxiety with a source of happiness. If the ratio of happiness to anxiety is similar-- or, ideally, even greater!-- you can identify a coping mechanism that will help you balance out your stress with a positive force. You can also try the following simple coping mechanisms as well!
  • Breathe! 
Breathing at a slow pace (possibly following diaphragmatic breathing exercises) helps us to relax, release tensions in our muscles, slow down our heart rate and feel better! 
  • Positivity! 
Let’s try to sometimes switch off the traditional news channels for a bit, and read some positive news (I personally love https://www.positive.news/). We all have our own ways of disconnecting and finding happiness, so think about what makes you feel good and go do those things! 
  • Go outside! 
Spending time in nature has been proven to have a positive and long-term impact on our health and wellbeing. So, try to go outside today, especially if you have been inside working on your assessments or watching TV for a long time, and just look! Observe what’s around you, feel the wind, smell the earthy scents around you, and listen to the sounds. If you are taking a walk, try to follow a new pathway today, explore some parts of your neighbourhood which you have not been before. 
  • Exercise! 
There are different online resources which can help us support our health and wellbeing, including lots of YouTube videos about exercising at home. 
  • Track your mood! 
Sometimes when we get lost in our own heads, it’s easy to forget how to be happy or feel as though we’ve lost our way. But these are exactly the moments when it’s vital to remind ourselves that we’ve been happy before and we will get there again, even if we can’t manage it right now. That’s why I would suggest keeping a daily diary where you can track the good 🙂, average 😐 and bad days 🙁, highlighting what made you happy, sad or anxious on that specific day (you can also use other emotions to ‘label’ each day; https://getemoji.com/). And if you choose to track your emotional health online, you can rely on a range of emojis as a fun way to help you! Keeping a record of our moods and the stimuli tied to them will help us rediscover something has made us happy before, and in turn, might help us to recreate that feeling. 
  • And last but not least, always remember to reach out to a friend, family member, or your tutor for support! People can surprise you with their willingness to help.
For more information Student Space is here to make it easier for you to find the support you need during the coronavirus pandemic.

For further information about managing stress during uni, please click here 

Alessio Bellato is a PhD researcher and Teaching Associate for the 'MSc Mental Health: Research and Practice' at the University of Nottingham. He has also experience in working as a psychologist with children and young people.