You wake up with a sore throat and assume the worst is coming. You check your inbox and see the bills you need to pay, even though you’ve lost your job. Maybe you’re not worried about yourself, but you are concerned for a family member.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our mental wellbeing. When everything feels out of balance, it can feel impossible to keep up with something so ordinary as uni.

I Zoomed in for a cup of tea with University Counsellor, Dr Emma Kerr, to talk about the ways the pandemic is affecting students’ mental health. Emma also shared her top 3 tips on how to manage those feelings while soldiering on with uni.

The first thing Dr Kerr told me is that periods of uncertainty tend to bring out strong emotions. “It’s really normal to experience anxiety or to feel low, overwhelmed, angry and frustrated – in a crisis situation it’s normal to have all those reactions.”

It’s really normal to experience anxiety or to feel low, overwhelmed, angry and frustrated – in a crisis situation it’s normal to have all those reactions.

For most people, it won’t be possible to eliminate COVID anxiety entirely; instead, we should aim to manage it while keeping up with daily life as best we can.

Step One: Focus on what you can control

Dr Kerr highlights the importance of recognising things that we can control versus those things we have no control over. To see an example of the circle of control click here.

We cannot control:

  • If others are following social distancing rules
  • Decisions the government makes
  • How long this situation will last

By ruminating on things like this, we are more likely to feel anxious and hopeless. Instead, we need to zero in on things like:

  • Managing our own routine
  • Staying focused on our personal goals
  • Managing our own social distancing and washing our hands
  • Staying in contact with friends

Step Two: Stick to your own routine

The key to this is to make your isolation schedule as close as possible to your normal routine and to ensure you plan for some balance. The three things to include are:

Activities focusing on achievement

  • Listening to an online lecture
  • Baking a batch of muffins
  • Doing an exercise video
  • Cleaning your bedroom

Activities focusing on connection

  • FaceTiming friends
  • Calling relatives

Leisure time

  • Netflix
  • Art and craft
  • Gaming
  • Reading

Dr Kerr says it’s crucial you balance out your day with a mix of these three categories.

“When people are stuck at home, they tend to go completely to one side – for instance, not really doing anything for pleasure, just getting totally caught up in studying and doing their uni work. Other people are going to go to 100% leisure and pleasure and lose focus on their uni completely. It depends on your personality – you just have to be mindful of where you fall on the spectrum and use your routine to schedule activities that bring in some balance.”

It’s also super important to get a normal amount of sleep, so aim for 7 – 9 hours and get dressed as you would if you were leaving the house.

Step Three: Setting small goals for each day

Make sure the goals you set for yourself are small. Dr Kerr says people often go through bouts of motivation and say things like “I’m going to declutter my entire house” or “I’m going to do that whole assignment today” – but setting big goals can lead to failure to meet expectations.

Instead of getting disheartened, set achievable goals each day (it’s okay if they are on the smaller side). Try three tasks like:

  • Today I’ll listen to one lecture and make notes; and
  • I will do a yoga video; and
  • I will speak to my best friend

This type of schedule ticks all three boxes of leisure, achievement and connection.

If you have tried all of these steps and are still having trouble managing your anxiety, it’s important to realise what is triggering you and address that specifically. For example, Dr Kerr says if the focus of your anxiety is body sensations like breathing or feeling hot or cold, turn your focus to something outside of your body.

“You could try mindfulness of the senses – what can I see? Hear? Touch? Taste? Smell? Observing your environment in this way is called grounding, and it can be helpful in dealing with strong anxiety.

“Some people may benefit from simply distracting themselves with a task to draw the focus away from the body – for instance, reading, baking, working on an assignment.”

If you would like to speak to a qualified counsellor, help is available through the UON Counselling Service. Call (02) 49 21 66 22 or book an online session here. If you find yourself in a mental health crisis after hours, call the University Crisis Support Line on 1300 653 007 or text 0488 863 216.

The Counselling team has also recorded an online webinar called ‘Coping with COVID-19’ which expands on the points in this article. 

For info updates on the University’s response to COVID-19, visit our COVID-19 page.

Feature Image via: Unsplash

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