Summa Cum Laude graduate and current postgraduate student at UKZN Romaana Muhammad shares her tips on surviving lockdown as a student
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With the Easter holidays behind us and the COVID-19 lockdown extended, many students are feeling downcast and overwhelmed by the additional amount of time they will have to spend confined to their homes.
It is understandable to be afraid, worried and anxious during this time. Apart from being concerned about friends and family members whom we are not permitted to visit, there is so much uncertainty about our education and now we suddenly face a situation few of us could ever have anticipated – online studying and lectures!
However, we all need to remember that as much as we miss our friends and families and it feels like our world is crumbling down around us, this thing will pass, life will carry on and we as students will be required to successfully complete our courses at the end of the semester.
In order to do this we need to carry on with some of the routine we were in before lockdown, including waking up early, taking a bath or shower, getting dressed for the day and having a healthy breakfast etc. As much as we may want to stay in our pyjamas the entire day, mental health professionals suggest we should more or less maintain our usual routines as this will help us feel more confident and ready for the tasks ahead.
Says New York psychotherapist Elizabeth Beecroft: ‘Getting dressed in the morning can play a role in your mood throughout the day and lead to further productivity, optimism, motivation and an overall improved mood.’ Researchers have found that following our normal routines gives us comfort and creates a feeling of security. Routines also establish a sense of structure and control over our environment, something we need to balance the recent loss of control we have been experiencing in the lockdown.
We also need to pay extra attention to our health during this time. As a student, one’s main priority, even before our education, is our health – and more so during this COVID-19 pandemic. It is important for us to have a healthy body and mind and for that we need to make sure that we have balanced meals three times a day, drink enough water, get enough sunlight (even if this means sitting next to a window for at least half an hour a day) and doing as much exercise as we can in our own homes.
Exercise can mean a walk around your apartment, home or garden, a quick morning stretching session or a full-on workout. During physical exercise, your skeletal muscle cells secrete proteins into the blood which have a regenerative effect on the brain. This can help improve your memory and supercharge your cognitive performance! Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – chemicals which naturally boost our mental state so necessary during this tough time. Exercise sessions should be worked into action plans which students need to have with specific times set aside for activities such as meal prepping, video-calling sessions or even snack breaks. Don’t forget to schedule alone-time reading a book or watching a movie or anything that takes you away from your immediate family and your study space.
You need a dedicated study space. I know it’s tempting to spend the entire day in bed or on the couch with your laptop, but this isn’t very healthy for your body and can lead to fatigue and eventually pain in the neck and upper back. Your spine needs a stable backrest to lean on – try to keep your back straight against the backrest and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Always remember to pay attention to your posture while you are completing your tasks.
Your space should ideally be in a quiet room like a spare bedroom or a garage to avoid distractions. You can turn any table into a study-station by placing all your essentials such as pens, highlighters, textbooks, notebooks, laptop and a large bottle of water on it. Add a comfortable chair that offers back support and you have your mini study-station! Using this space shows people who live with you that you’re ‘at campus’. It is also important that you create boundaries within your home and that your family members know when you are busy completing university (or school) tasks and do not want to be interrupted or distracted.
Additionally, be mindful not to let social media be a distraction. This can be done by logging out of your social media accounts for the day or only allowing yourself to go online during your breaks.
It is important to schedule breaks and not to spend too much time in front of a screen. Try to alternate between studying and taking lectures on your laptop and reading physical printed textbooks or printed or handwritten notes. Looking at a screen for extended periods can cause strained, dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches. It also causes sleep issues as the blue light emitted from screens suppress melatonin – the sleep-promoting hormone – keeping us from having a restful night. Spending significant time with screens also lowers your cardiovascular health and increases your mortality risk. A good idea to reduce screen time would be to step away from your desk and study or read a printed novel in your garden for a few minutes a day, this could serve as a study or break session, depending on what you choose to do during this time.
According to The Attention Restoration Theory by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, being outside can calm our minds and improve our ability to concentrate – it re-energises us and reduces fatigue. In addition, being outdoors lowers the stress hormone – cortisol – and immunises us against associated problems such as hypertension and tachycardia. Spending time outside could be a good habit to implement just before the end of your campus day.
End your campus day as you usually would at around 4pm and spend the rest of the evening relaxing as you usually would. Watching TV, browsing through social media, etc, but be conscious of your mental health whilst engaging in these activities. Being constantly exposed to news and COVID-19 statistics can increase our feelings of fear and anxiety. We can curb this by managing our exposure to media coverage, being mindful of where our information comes from and ensuring we are accessing accurate information. It is also wise to limit news intake to brief periods such as half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening.
Lastly, keep to your bedtime and make sure you get those eight hours of sleep every night! Healthy sleep is important for emotion regulation, which is why we may find a good sleep beneficial during this time. Try to limit your time in bed to your regular night-time activities such as listening to music or calling a friend.
Be mindful of checking up on your friends during this time. If you suspect that someone you know may be struggling through social distancing, it is important to reach out to them and let them know you care. Social distancing can be difficult, especially if someone is a sociable individual. However, social distancing does not mean social isolation. We are still allowed to virtually communicate with people and with modern technology, video-calling friends can be just as entertaining and satisfying as being with them face-to-face. Schedule online lunch dates or send a friend a video message – it may just make their day!
If we want to make a difference in the lives of more people during this difficult time, we should also pay special attention to those we know who have mental illnesses.
Being isolated may cause individuals prone to depression to focus all their attention onto the aspects of their lives that upsets them. In addition, constantly being updated about the COVID-19 pandemic may increase their sense of negativity about their circumstances.
We should encourage these individuals to contact their psychologists or SADAG when they feel the need arise and we should try to be a beacon of hope and support for them, as mental health professional resources are currently strained and these individuals may not get the ideal amount of therapy they need.
While lockdown is a difficult concept to deal with, we will get used to it. Most important is to stay positive, follow the lockdown rules and remember that this will all be over soon.
My best wishes to all students and a reminder to keep studying, stay safe and STAY HOME!
For those in need of mental health support, SADAG is providing the following support:
Online Toolkit on the Sadag website (www.sadag.org) with free and reliable resources, online videos, coping skills, online tools and info on social distancing, self-isolation, etc.
Chat online with a counsellor seven days a week from 9am to 4pm via the Cipla WhatsApp Chat Line 076 882 2775.
SMS 31393 or 32312 and a counsellor will call you back – available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Sadag Helplines provide free telephonic counselling, information, referrals and resources seven days a week, 24 hours a day – call 0800 21 22 23, 0800 70 80 90 or 0800 456 789 or the Suicide Helpline 0800 567 567.
Also available are:Lifeline 24-hour counselling numbers: 0861 322 322 or 0800-150-150.Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline: 0800 70 80 90.Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393.Cipla 24-Hour Mental Health Helpline: 0800 456 789 or WhatsApp: 076 88 22 77 5.