With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing restrictions on movement and other aspects of life, also come anxiety, fear and a strange sense of unreality. Doing anything related to your PhD seems unusually hard, or pointless… even dangerous, compared with being continuously in the lookout for the latest news or advice on what to do. In this post, I share a mantra and a few other tips that I use to help myself stay sane and (kinda) productive in these difficult times.
As of today, restrictions are still not too bad where I live (Estonia), compared to what I hear from places like Italy or Spain… at least, we can still go out on the street. Yet, even in this milder state of emergency, I notice sometimes a knot in the stomach, or my heart pounding faster than normal, tension in the jaw, or a sense of things being strange, surreal… And let’s not event talk about work performance (we’re working from home, of course): I’m not able to concentrate, I’m scattered, and progress seems painfully slow.
Fortunately, just before I convinced myself that I was experiencing some sort of virus attack, I looked “anxiety” up in Wikipedia and other psychological resources. Yup, that’s it, fits quite well. I’m just anxious.
Probably you are, too.
Anxiety is just a response to perceived threats, which we evolved for a very good reason (i.e., to make us get away from danger – and fast!). And we are in danger, with this virus pandemic going on, right? However, how can you get away from this danger? Many of us cannot even get out of home that much! Maybe here this particular evolutionary mechanism is not helping…
Then, a couple of things happened to me.
I heard this podcast where they talk about the difference between profitable (i.e., productive) anxiety and unprofitable one. To follow the same approach we saw in the “happiness in the lab” post series (first diagnose, then intervene), the way to diagnose what kind of anxiety you’re experiencing is simple: are these anxious feelings or thoughts compelling you to take a specific action that you think might help? if that’s the case (e.g., it is telling you to go and wash your hands because you just came from the supermarket), then go ahead, do that action, and probably you will feel better. If not, then probably you are having some kind of unproductive worry with you. How can you intervene to help yourself? One trick they mentioned in the podcast, which also came up in our recent workshops on doctoral progress, is to just stop and write down, in a piece of paper, what you’re thinking/feeling: “I am now having the thought/feeling that…”. Read it, and realize how it may be a bit overblown, or that there is not so much you can do about it right now. Fold it, put it in your back pocket, and get on with what you were doing. Chances are, you will feel much better.
The other thing that happened to me, which helped offset these fears, is that I read a quote that I found striking, given my frazzled state of mind. Striking, but also inspiring.
That is this week’s “Monday mantra”.
Most of our fears… never actually happen
Looking around, it seems that the originator of this quote and its canonical form are not very clear. However, the main idea, repeated throughout history by multiple smart (and predominantly old) people, is clear: when we look at it retrospectively, it becomes clear that we tend to worry a bit more than needed, and that our track record as prophets of disaster is quite abysmal – either because the bad things we predict never end up happening, or because different bad things happen, for which we did not prepare.
This is not to say that we should not care about this virus at all (see below for more on that), or that everything is all right. It is not. Real people are dying, or having a lot of suffering from the disease, and millions of people are having smaller-scale problems, e.g., from being locked down all day at home. And the economic consequences of the virus for millions and millions of people across the world, are still to be determined. The situation is bad, in many many ways.
However, once you have done what is in your hands (like, washing them!)… how much added value is there in constant worry and fear? Fear was very useful when our ancestors lived in the African savannah and had to run from predators. Nowadays, it pays to keep calm and use your brain, since the predator is invisible and cannot be outrun.
The mantra above can also be connected with many ancient philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism1 which emphasize focusing on what you can control (e.g., practicing “social distancing” in the next weeks), rather than on what is outside of your control (e.g., people are dying of the virus!!).
Tips for a less-anxious PhD during the COVID
So, if you (or people close to you) are fighting the virus, by all means, focus on your health and recovery. You have all our best wishes and support. For the rest of us, who cannot do much about others’ health and still can work (even if we have to do it from home2), here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful so far, which could become “mantras” on their own right:
- Be careful, not anxious. This is rule #1 – safety first. Don’t put your life (or that of others near you) in danger. Follow the guidelines established by your local authorities (e.g., these for Estonia3) or by respected healthcare entities (for instance, the World Health Organization or well-known healthcare universities like Johns Hopkins). But, once you establish what you need to do, and internalize the routine and habits to follow these guidelines, you don’t have to worry anymore. Just do it, and move on.
- Be mindful. From time to time, just stop for a minute, and notice how you are: are you tense, cranky, sleepy, headachey, tired, just fine…? Breathe three times. Meditate, if you find it helps you. The idea is just to be present here and now for some moments (vs. thinking about virus-related stuff), to check in with yourself and see if you have any physical or mental symptoms, virus-related or, more probably, anxiety and stress-related. This will help you decide what is the most skillful next action to take (be it to call the virus help line, or just to smile to that family member that you were finding so irritating a minute ago).
- Don’t consume media 24/7. Since we are at home most of the time now, the temptation is to fill all the time we’re not working (and some of the time we’re working as well – it’s so hard to separate them now!) with the latest news updates on the TV, the radio or social media. That scared voice in our brain whispers: Maybe our Facebook feed will give us the ultimate lifehack to remain free of the virus, if we scroll down long enough. These days, I try not to look at news at all, or do it in well-defined timeboxes. I actually prefer to look at not-so-newsy sources which still are updated daily: the Wikipedia page of the outbreak, for instance, is very complete, has links to country-specific pages that are also regularly updated, and seems quite focused on facts and free of sensationalism and politization of the virus. The other common temptation these days is to spend all your time on Netflix, Youtube and other entertainment platforms. This is not bad per se, but it can become the time sink of all your home confinement time. And, for some reason, I never leave these bouts of binge-watching or binge-gaming feeling refreshed and satisfied. To create some variety, you can also take a paper book and read it. Or, even better, create something. Compose a song. Invent a children’s tale for your kids. Knit a scarf. Create. Something.
- Stay in touch (digitally), reconnect. You may be forced to spend most of your time at home, alone or with only a few family members. Luckily, most of us also have ways to communicate, anytime we want, with almost anyone we know in the world. This is an everyday miracle we seldom appreciate. The lockdown will limit your social life in many ways, but you don’t need to kill it altogether. Take the opportunity to talk with people you seldom speak with. These days, I’m seeing family and friends in Spain more than I did when life was normal. Connect with a long-forgotten friend or relative. Probably, they will be at home and bored as well, and both of you will appreciate the conversation. Bonus points if you manage to give each other hope, rather than descending into a complaint-fest about how the world is gonna end!
- Sleep all you can. And try to keep a healthy lifestyle in general. Lack of sleep is known to make our immune system more vulnerable, and to bias our brain towards fear. During the outbreak, we have enough challenges in those two areas already, let’s not make things harder for ourselves. Doing a bit of exercise will probably not hurt either, as long as you comply with rule #1 (safety). Personally, I’m looking into bodyweight routines that I can do at home, to spend some of that excess energy from the lockdown, now that gyms are closed. And exercise will help you sleep, as long as you don’t do it late in the evening.
- Stay the course… but lower expectations. Maybe this one sums it all up: unless you are physically unable to do so, try to continue striving towards your goals, towards the things you value. Hopefully, your research and the PhD is one of those. Just be aware that, in the current circumstances, your productivity and energy may not be the same as usual. Be OK with that. Adapt to the new environment as you can, and go on.
Of course, I am not perfect at any of these practices. I still experience fear occasionally, and spend more time than I’d like in front of the TV or my phone. And my own productivity has kinda tanked. But it is OK. This is not about perfection, it is a practice, and we will get progressively better at it4.
As a species, we will survive this outbreak. And we will need research and researchers in the other side of it. We will need them more than ever in the future: not only in virology, but also in sociology, history, economics, technology, education… the knowledge we develop in all those areas can be crucial when the next global challenge presents itself. Stay the course, if you have that possibility. And if you don’t, just stay safe.
Do you have other inspiring quotes, tips or tricks to stay productive and free from anxiety these days of lockdown? Let us know in the comments below!
Header image by the NIH Image Gallery
… and also modern therapy approaches like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, see Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), 427–440. ↩︎
Working from home, especially if you have to take care of children or other dependents who also stay at home, is no small achievement. Kudos to those stay-at-home-working-parents! ↩︎
Interestingly, these guidelines also include separate advice for dealing with stress, with quite similar advice to the one in this post. So, if you’re stressed out and anxious, it may help you to know that this is a common, expected effect of pandemic outbreaks like the one we’re having. ↩︎
For instance, I have discovered that I focus better on the work stuff at home when I change my clothes to what I normally wear at work, instead of keeping the comfy, at-home clothing all day. Go figure. ↩︎
Luis P. Prieto
Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.