Academic life and beyond during COVID-19

Dr Nurgalieva in her hiding

Dr Nurgalieva in her hiding

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Today is my 17th day in self-isolation. The number of cases in Ireland is increasing every day, like in most of the countries, and the official response is also similar to the rest of the EU. I am trying to follow the guidelines as best as I can, which for me means almost no human contact the whole quarantine time.

I realise that I am in a very advantaged situation. I have my place without flatmates whom I might not have liked, no kids running around, I am not a caregiver, I have a more or less stable internet connection, and I still can have outside walks, as I live next to an enormous park where I can keep the necessary distance. I have the opportunity to work from home, and I did not lose my job like thousands of people in Ireland and much more globally. Because of these advantages and not having a background in physiology or working from home, I hesitated with this blog post, as it felt not worthy of sharing – there are so many great posts written already and mine will not add much to the “body of knowledge”.

Still, it’s my experience that I would like to document and share, as it’s tough for me and I am learning how to deal with the situation. It’s challenging to produce knowledge when your mind is anxious with the news in English, Italian, and Russian. I am from Russia, which is now going through hard times due to coronavirus but also economically and politically, but I consider the north of Italy as my home too, and I cannot distance myself from what’s happening there. These days, I feel like I am going through phases: from being paralysed with anxiety, to being hyperactive, to finally finding a temporary balance. I am also adjusting to the changes, as many people now, and for me, it’s a slow process, even with all the advantages I have. Sometimes, I blame myself for being too slow and not productive enough and not making the most of this time: finishing the papers, completing study protocols I have been thinking about, taking those online courses that were waiting in my browser bookmarks. It seems, even the pandemics does not make the fear of missing out go away easily. Still, when I can, I stop myself and say we are all different, and we process the negative in our life differently and with our own speed. I am an extrovert and not the one who usually works from home, I like the routine of going to the University every day and being around people, and I even like the meetings (!).

To adjust better, these days, I have been reading many posts on maintaining your mental health in quarantine, and next, I would like to share what helps me to work from home and manage anxiety.

  1. Planning. The toughest thing for me is the uncertainty and inability to plan long-ish term. Still, every evening, I try to write down the action items for the next day (that sometimes transfer beyond), which include both work-related and unrelated tasks. I am trying to make sure to have some online social interactions every day, like a Skype lunch with a friend or a movie night with my partner when we watch the same movie while staying on Skype and he has to keep up with my comments and questions (I am that person in a couple). I am also considering to take up gardening – if I manage to get soil and some seeds – a hobby I could share with parents on a distance.

  2. Quantification. I use Pomodoro tool and try to record my progress for the tasks, even if it is far from impressive. While I was pretty active in my pre-quarantine life, now I find it easy to stay the whole day in pyjama and lose track of the snacks, so I also keep a food journal and check the number of steps I do during the day trying to have some reference and stay on track with my regular routine. The walks in the park are still allowed in Ireland, so I try to get my 10k steps (doesn’t happen always) in the least populated hours, even if it is after dark.

  3. Sports and social media. In February, I finally managed to find a sports community I like and develop a routine of attending classes regularly, which was also disrupted by COVID-19 outbreak. Luckily, the classes moved to social media, and I find it very encouraging and motivating to connect with others through Instagram and Youtube, following others and posting my own progress (it was quite intimidating at first). Yoga community also quickly responded to the changes and share lots of resources online and free, for instance, 30 Days of Space by A Yoga Girl Community. Participating in those activities gives me a feeling of connectedness and regular routine, which helps not to feel so lost in these uncertain times.

  4. Group work and reaching for others. While working alone has many advantages, for me, being part of the group and working closely with others is important even if it is sharing random ideas in a chat during the day with my officemates. As an online alternative of that, I am testing “co-working” with my Berkeley colleagues. It means staying in a Skype call when working, which gives us a feeling of presence, even if it means just hearing someone breathing and typing in another side of the planet. Another way to feel more connected is keeping a Google hangouts link for digital coffee breaks in our HTD group (more an ad-hoc activity) and attending online panel discussions of HCI community, for instance, the ones organised by NORTH Lab at Northumbria University.

  5. Rituals. Before coronavirus hit our society, I was set to learn how to adopt new (hopefully, healthier) habits and even started reading a book of prof. Sean Young “Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life-for Good “. Now, when I am home alone, I find tracking those habits (hello, quantification, again!) – like reading one chapter of a book, meditating, or applying face cream each day – as islands of certainty in the ocean of daily uncertainty.

Of course, those are the tools that seem to work for me, and that could fail for others. For instance, food logging can worsen eating disorder behaviours, fuelling obsessive logging and changing the relationship with food. Similarly, following “health and fitness” accounts has a relationship with “thin-ideal internalisation” and affect body image negatively. In fact, not all of the tools advised by articles on mental health in quarantine resonated with me or I can implement. For instance, limiting the news to once a day is a great idea, but for now, I am unable to follow it. I also feel overwhelmed by all the online resources available now and sometimes feel bad for not using them. Still, I am happy to discuss the topic of working from home or any others and connect in these strange times.

Let me know if you would like to chat wherever you are!