Feeling burned out? Here are our top tips for handling uni and pandemic stress
For those of you who are feeling like getting a degree in a pandemic while trying to guard your sanity is an impossible task, here is our tried and tested survival guide.
Let’s face it – doing work while you’re stuck at home in a pandemic is tough. Stress levels are at an all-time high, and without long library sessions or face-to-face interactions with your fellow students, it is easy to lose motivation and feel overwhelmed.
As someone who has been in a state of burnout since the start of the pandemic, I feel your pain. The good news is that I have tried and tested many things, somehow managed to write a dissertation, start a new degree and actually feel better, and I can now pass on my top tips on how to survive university while having pandemic stress!
If you are struggling to study right now, there’s a very high probability that it is because you are dealing with high levels of stress, even when you don’t notice it. So, a lot of these tips focus more on reducing stress than on the actual studying itself but take it from me: it will be your key to success.
Set healthy boundaries and get a routine
Being confined at home means that it’s very easy to become disconnected from your daily routine and get stuck in a slump, so it is crucial to establish a routine that you can stick to.
With deadlines on the horizon and stress levels rising, it is easy to ask too much of yourself. If you want to keep your stress in check, it is important to have a healthy work-life balance, and that means setting clear boundaries for yourself.
Try to be as proactive as possible in planning your relax time as in planning your work time. For example, you can set ‘working hours’ for yourself: for me, it’s 10 to 18, but if you work better at night, you can try to do 13 to 21. The most important thing is that you show as much respect for your “off”-time as for your “on”-time. That means no quick reading, no emails and no late-night presentation prep. If possible, try to keep at least one day in the week completely free, but if you are drowning in deadlines, you can try and give yourself a morning or afternoon off instead.
If you find that you quickly run out of energy while studying, try working in rounds. Right now, I follow every 1.5 hours of study by a 30-minute break, but you can switch this around as much as you want to.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to adapt your routine as you go along. If you find that something doesn’t work for you, try something else, and allow yourself to be flexible from time to time!
Mind your surroundings
With limited access to libraries, try to create a designated ‘work area’ at home (as best you can). Our brains associate certain places at home with certain activities, so if you create a space that you can associate with studying, it will be easier for you to actually start while sitting there. If you can, try to work in a different room than your bedroom or living room, or only sit at your desk to study.
If you lack space at home, use a different chair at the dinner table to study than you would use while eating, or sit at the opposite side of your bed. Get creative – it matters less where you sit, and more that you are consistent with it!
Once you have established your work area, make sure that you keep it from getting cluttered. Messy environments can easily distract you while working, or just add to your stress. You could try taking 2 minutes to clear out your study space at the start of your study routine.
Creating a nice work area will help to soothe your stress and will make you feel more inclined to sit there, so put some effort into cheering up your workspace. Light some candles, get a plant, put up some nice lights, or just do what I did and redecorate your entire room.
No, I’m not going to tell you to do a 30-day workout challenge (with deadlines approaching, who has time for that?), but if you find that you lack energy, doing even 10 minutes of exercise will help to give you a boost.
Go for a run, do some pilates, follow an online workout class or put on a fun playlist and pretend to be back in Loop for a bit! It’s good for you and can help you with all those sore muscles from sitting down all day.
If you’d rather use your time to reduce stress, try to do some yoga at the end of your workday to help you unwind.
Speaking about stress reduction, I have found meditation to be an actual lifesaver, especially when suffering from stress and anxiety. It might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but it will help you to calm down and can have amazing long-term mental health benefits if you do it daily. It is also a habit that you can slowly ease yourself into: it doesn’t matter if you do it for 3, 5 or 10 minutes, as long as you show up!
There are many great resources for meditation out there: my personal favourite is the Headspace app, but if you’d rather not pay money, they just released a series of guided meditations on Netflix, or you can find loads of free guided meditations on Spotify!
Don’t feel ashamed if you are struggling right now – you are literally trying to get a degree in a pandemic.
If you find that the pandemic is having a major impact on the way you function, now is the time to reach out for support. Talk to your friends and family to see if there are ways in which they could help you and get in contact with your personal tutor to keep them updated about your situation.
If you are experiencing significant distress or if you find that your stress has become long-term, go and make an appointment with your GP. Even if you cannot get referred to a psychologist straight away, they will be able to provide you with a declaration, which you can use to get extra help from Student Support or to apply for Extenuating Circumstances. If you are an international student, make sure that this declaration is written in English.
UCL also has an enhanced Extenuating Circumstances policy at the moment that you can use if you need help ASAP, which means you can apply for an extension up to two weeks for two separate 14-day periods throughout the academic year without having to provide any evidence. You can submit the EC-form up until one week after your deadline(s).
This one is pretty straightforward, but if you’re anything like me, you probably struggle a lot more to stay focused at home than at the library. Luckily, there are many handy apps out there, like Forest and Freedom, that block your phone for a limited time and allow you to focus on the task ahead.
Many devices also allow you to set timers for certain websites or apps, and if you are finding yourself getting lost in doomscrolling at the moment, now is the time to use them. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be a great way to shut out your surroundings, especially if you have a busy household, but they can be quite the splurge.
Try to stay organised
Now that we can’t have as many face-to-face interactions with our tutors and fellow students, we get less reminders of the things we need to do, and you can very easily feel overwhelmed once you lose track of things. Thankfully, there are many apps that allow you to keep track of task and stay organised. My personal favourite is Asana because it rewards you with rainbow unicorns when you complete a task, although there are many alternatives out there.
(And if you are an organisational freak like me, try bullet journaling – it’s a fun way to stay organised and honestly, I would have been completely lost without mine.)
Although hibernation might seem like a great idea right now, that is not what I’m proposing here. If you are feeling burned out or stressed, chances are that you need more sleep than usual, and I am here to tell you to: Go! Get ! Rested!
Getting enough sleep will help you to stay concentrated while studying and helps reduce stress, so it’s a win-win situation. Your bedtime doesn’t matter: go to bed at 9pm or 3am, as long as you get those much needed hours of sleep and you are consistent with your sleep hours. Right now, it is much more important that you start your day well-rested than that you get up at a reasonable time.
But most importantly: Be kind to yourself!
This is a really difficult time, so it is absolutely normal to have days in which you feel off, burned out or anxious. Even if you have tried everything, you will probably have days in which studying just seems impossible, and it’s best to try again another time.
Beware the frustration loop: if you try to force yourself to work on days in which your mental state is in the gutter, you will only grow more frustrated with yourself because you are unable to get started. Your mind is trying to tell you that it needs a break! Go do something you enjoy or that makes you feel relaxed and try to return to your work at another time or another day.