Mental Wealth: A PhD candidate’s guide to promoting mental wellbeing during COVID-19

22nd March 2021

By Claire Elek 

As humans, our experiences and interaction with others shape who we are as individuals, being tightly bound to our own sense of self. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us into a more isolated and hermit-like existence, making it incredibly difficult not to lose sight of who we are.

But there are positive steps we can take to help cope with issues that have perhaps become hyper-exposed for postgraduate students – we are not only missing out on valuable experiences in real life, but we have also lost some sense of community and camaraderie, things that cannot be replicated or replaced with virtual meetings.

 

1. Get creative

Participation in creative activities has long been documented as a method of managing mental distress and can help promote feelings of social inclusion. Positive benefits of getting creative include reduced stress and anxiety levels, as well as allowing participants to stay in the present moment, a key component of mindfulness.

There are many ways to get creative, even if you don’t consider yourself particularly creative. Activities include drawing and painting, but also encompass creative writing, printing, crocheting, pottery, baking, and even gardening. You can even incorporate your research into your creative outputs and contribute to the #SciArt community on social media – see my own creation above!

Find an activity that appeals to you, check out some online resources such as Crafts Council for how to get started, and jump in!

 

2. Get active 

This is another well-known and well-discussed of mental health advice, and trust me, it’s a justified one. It is particularly important in light of COVID-19, which has significantly limited our movements. Access to green spaces also improves mental wellbeing, but this is more difficult with COVID-19 restrictions, especially for those that live in apartments or more urban areas. If you have access to green spaces, exploit them!

Out for a run in my local woods just the other day. It was my first of 2021 and yes, it was tough!

The hardest part about getting active when you’re feeling low is getting started. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions except this – just start! Set yourself a small, achievable goal such as a short 15-minute walk in your local area. If you live with others, you can set joint goals – there are multiple benefits to having a workout partner, including increased motivation. Many gyms are also offering virtual workouts to members that range from low impact activities like yoga to high impact, high-intensity workouts. You don’t need fancy gear or equipment, and you can do them in your own time, from the comfort of your own home.

 

3. Improve your sleep hygiene

Having several diagnosed mental health conditions, good sleep hygiene was probably the thing I appreciated the least, from which I benefited the most. Sleep issues are linked to depression and vice versa – this is not surprising given that sleep is essential to maintaining circadian rhythms and happiness through the modulation of serotonin in the brain.

There are many resources that can help you improve your sleep hygiene, but my main tips are:

  • Make your bedroom sleep-friendly – keep lighting low and avoid bright lights of TVs, phones, or tablets (keep them out of the room completely, if possible).
  • Be consistent – establish a sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each evening and waking up at the same time each morning, this helps reset your body clock and gets you used to being up at a certain time.
  • Transition to sleep – create a pre-sleep routine that avoids any stressful, emotional, or high energy activities 1-2 hours before you aim to be asleep. Activities such as taking a bath or reading a book can help.
  • Watch what you eat and drink – avoid caffeine at all costs as it’s a stimulant, and avoid eating large, rich meals 3-4 hours before bed, as they can cause indigestion. Whilst alcohol can make you sleepy, it is a depressant and can interfere with your ability to stay asleep.

 

4. Self-care

All of the above advice and tips fall under self-care, but I wanted to specifically touch on showing yourself some TLC.

Firstly, forgive yourself. In academia, it’s very easy to take research failures personally and it’s super difficult to disentangle this from your own self-worth. Failure is part of the process and it is important to allow yourself time and space to grow as a researcher and as an individual. Secondly, seek support from people that build you up. This can be through a mentoring scheme, or through peer support networks such as student groups. The world is full of people trying to tear you down and often the support of others goes a long way in building self-confidence.

 

Our Graduate Studies Office is available for students. If you feel you need support, please contact them via graduates.nrp@nbi.ac.uk or on +44 (0)1603 450768.

The Quadram Student Forum offer a range of events and peer activities. Find out more here and keep up to date with the latest news on Twitter

Wellbeing support for staff and students

General resources for mental health and wellbeing