Re-prioritizing mental health during COVID-19

Nearing the anniversary of the first reported COVID-19 case, the burden of the pandemic has impacted graduate students and postdocs in specific and often isolated ways. More trainees than ever before are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, written about here (graduate students) and here (postdocs). For graduate students, a common thread is the feeling of not being productive enough, compared to the fast-paced environment of pre-COVID academia. For postdocs, fears of losing their jobs, as contracts are often yearly and funding is not necessarily extended despite the pandemic, and being forced to look outside of academia are contributing to new waves of anxiety.

Plus, we have anxieties outside of science including election season, social injustices, financial concerns, and pandemic fatigue. Truthfully, thinking about all the burdens in the country and world make me want to never leave my bed.

As we try to adjust to our new normal, what can we do to preserve our mental health? Here are a few ideas to help cope:

  1. Be more accepting. Accept that you cannot compare your productivity before the pandemic to new. You are doing the best you can and you should be proud of yourself. Further, be more accepting of others. Understand this pandemic is a collective trauma that affects us all differently, so the people around you are different because of this, as well.
  2. Re-adjust your priorities. While you can only do so much to get that manuscript submitted, or that experiment done, there are plenty in your life you can have control over. In academia, we are used to prioritizing science over all else, but take this pandemic as an opportunity to slow down, and place yourself first. We likely are unable to work long hours, so focus on a hobby, or a goal like eating better or working out. Take control over your time not working to prevent ruminations over things you can’t control.
  3. Maintain a routine. Routines give us a sense of structure and accomplishment. They also help our insatiable need as scientists to feel busy!
  4. Practice mindfulness. For those unaware of the term, mindfulness is being present in the moment in a observational, non-judgmental way. A short list of the benefits of mindfulness is available here. Mindfulness certainly takes practice. I chose to practice mindfulness through meditation, and early on I could not get through a 3 minute meditation without becoming frustrated with myself for not focusing better. Now I can get through a 15 minute meditation with kindness and acceptance toward myself. There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness, as shown here. For me personally, practicing mindfulness in daily life has led me to have a clearer head, less negative self talk, and has provided me tools to re-examine anxiety. Highly recommend.

What other tools can you think of to protect our mental health and prevent pandemic fatigue? Share them with us by emailing Morgan at mpreziosi91@gmail.com