Coping with COVID-19: A Graduate Student’s Reflections

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Coping with COVID-19

About one month ago, I wrote a blog post about strategies for networking at the 2020 MPSA Conference. To be frank, given the last few weeks, my post about networking and my own research seem moot. In the last few weeks, rates of COVID-19 continue to rise in the US and continue to drastically impact other countries around the world. Roughly 135 universities across the US have canceled in-person classes and are moving to online classes: amplifying concerns about food security for students. Over 3.3 million people people have filed for unemployment leaving many, especially workers in the restaurant and travel industry, without jobs for the foreseeable future. I find this uncertain, tumultuous state of the world paralyzing: How is my community doing? How is my family doing? How are my friends doing? How am I doing?

The answers to my questions change daily, but I have much to be grateful for amidst the chaos. My job and income are secure; my family, friends, and colleagues are all healthy and safe. Unfortunately, I know that many people are not as lucky as me. And my heart breaks for people who have lost loved ones, face financial insecurity, and the general negative effects of this pandemic.

Within such a short period of time, I find myself living in a scary and different world. Although I don’t have a lot to offer—I wish I had more—I can offer a few strategies I’m implementing in my life to make it through these trying times. Take whatever you find helpful, and leave everything else.

1). Prioritize Your Mental Health
Limit Your Screen Time
Now that I’m home all day on my laptop, I find myself tempted to binge the news and social media everyday. However, many studies highlight how excessive screen time on social media, news outlets, and large amounts of television can have negative impacts on mental health for adults and adolescents. It especially doesn’t help that when most of us feel anxious, we tend to remember the stressful and threatening information surrounding our anxiety. I’ve decided to take a social media cleanse to prioritize my mental health: I’ve deleted all social media apps on my phone, and I’ve gotten a good friend of mine to change my password on Facebook so I can’t login on my desktop. If that sounds too extreme, another strategy I’ve found effective was limiting my screen time on social media to one hour a day.  

Be Kind to Yourself
Before I deleted Twitter off my phone, I saw many people tweet about their productivity with statements like, “I wrote one chapter of my dissertation, and I also moved my entire class onto Zoom in one week! I am so productive!” While I’m happy that some faculty members and graduate students are pushing through and being productive, hearing about their productivity brought up feelings of shame and guilt. I’d ask myself questions like, “What’s wrong with me—am I overreacting to the coronavirus? Shouldn’t I be able to work the full 50 hours this week?” Ultimately, I’ve realized comparing others productivity to my own was unhelpful; the only purpose it served was beating myself up for my lack of productivity. I’m cutting myself more slack by acknowledging the impact COVID-19 has on me by writing a list of what I can and cannot control. In particular, I’m acknowledging that my stress makes it more challenging to continue working the same number of hours: I personally can’t pretend everything is business as usual. If you find you’re being unkind to yourself and feeling shame, I find Brené Brown’s discussion of the Shame Spiral a helpful resource, especially reaching out to someone you trust and sharing your story.

2). Prioritize Your Physical Health
Build Routine
Right now, it’s hard to know when COVID-19 and physical distancing is going to end. As a result, I’ve focused on building a routine that prioritizes my physical health: sleeping eight hours a night, eating healthier foods, and exercising my body. My advice to myself was simple enough, but I found it challenging to actually workout in the morning and stop eating ramen for lunch everyday after the first week. So, I readjusted my expectations by setting small goals I could achieve. If I’m eating ramen almost everyday for lunch, it is an unrealistic expectation that I make healthy salads for all my lunches and start eating them in one day. If I focus on eating one healthy lunch during the week and gradually changing my behavior, I find that I’m more likely to succeed in my goals—and be kinder to myself if I slip up. I’ve also found an accountability buddy that I text to check-in with and workout with over YouTube videos, which has been extremely helpful. (I’ve heard that some people do Zoom workouts together, although I haven’t tried that yet.) By having a buddy, I find that I hold myself and them more accountable to actually workout together. In the end, part of my fear is the unknown for how long we’ll be living with COVID-19. By building routine into my life that prioritizes my physical health, I find myself feeling better. 

3). Prioritize your Social Health
Practice Physical Distancing: Talk with Family & Friends
Social isolation can have negative consequences on our health: when we feel isolated, our immune and endocrine systems don’t work as well. While I’ve practiced physical distancing, I’ve found myself feeling more lonely, so I’ve been reaching out to my friends and loved ones. I find talking with them on Zoom or over the phone gives me energy and helps address my feelings of loneliness. To be frank, talking with them is usually the highlight of my day. However, I initially found it easy to talk about negative topics for long periods of time with them, so I often left these conversations feeling drained. Now, I emphasize we talk about positive topics like good news in their lives, TV shows that make them laugh, and podcast recommendations. I now have a slew of new shows to watch, which I can talk about with them the next time we check-in to distract ourselves from the world. Finally, I’d say it’s worth checking in with your friends who live alone and don’t have pets. Personally, I’ve found quarantine especially challenging because I’m all alone, and it has meant a lot to me when people reach out to check-in on me. 

Ultimately, as we embrace living a new “normal,” I hope we can treat each other with kindness and help each other during these challenging times. If you’re able, donate to a relief effort; take physical distancing seriously; and reach out to a loved one who may be lonely and struggling during these challenging times. If we all work together, I firmly believe we can make it through these challenges times.

 

James SteurAbout the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter @JamesSteur