Don’t Pan(dem)ic!

Tips for Maintaining a Positive Mindset to Manage School, Work, and Life Stress during the Pandemic

By Kelly Tabbutt

neon sign that says "and breathe"
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Don’t let the COVID-19 pandemic get the best of you. There are simple ways to achieve work-life balance in the era of the novel coronavirus.

Introduction

The demands of school, work, and life can be overwhelming in normal times. The pandemic’s entailed social-distancing and move to virtual or hybrid schooling and work, the added stress of uncertainty of the future, and the dissolution of the structures to which we have become accustomed, can exacerbate anxiety and make our stress level reach nearly untenable levels. Although we cannot ignore the uncertainty facing us, and the resulting stress and anxiety, we can work to shift our perception and awaken ourselves to opportunities.

In this blog, I will offer advice and lessons from personal insight and experience, as well as what others are saying about how to manage stress and anxiety during the pandemic while meeting the demands of school, work, and life. I will offer advice that vacillates between stability and maintenance of the familiar and seizing this unique opportunity for restructuring.

Seek Normalcy

(Ab)Normalcy and Discontent

One of the most jarring aspects of the pandemic is the sense of uncertainty. A century and a half ago, Karl Marx described the modern era as one in which “all that is solid melts into air” – never have these words felt more apt than in our current moment. Normalcy — routine and structure — is extremely important to well-being.

One of the most jarring aspects of the pandemic is the sense of uncertainty…we are left feeling like the rug has been (or will be) pulled out from under us.

The sociological term “anomie” describes the sense of aimlessness and anguish that arises when the norms and social structures we are accustomed to disappear and we are left feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under us (or are waiting for it to be pulled out). While anomie is certainly a looming threat, it can be combated with the right perception and enough stability.

Maintain Routines

In uncertainty, routines are your friend. The key to warding off stress and anxiety in times of uncertainty is to seek and maintain a balanced routine wherever possible. Even if you do not have to leave the house or communicate with others throughout the day, one of the easiest ways to maintain normalcy is to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Go to sleep at the same time each night – and get enough sleep. No matter what, wake up at the same time (the earlier the better) and get ready as if you were going out in the world: take a shower, eat breakfast, exercise or do yoga, and get dressed. I suggest getting dressed in work attire, as this will put you in the mindset for a productive day.

Set a regular work schedule. For students, particularly graduate students, the work we do is often on long-term projects that require regular work but see irregular oversight. Set a time during the day for reading, writing, research, and any other work you have to do (teaching work or non-academic work).

Build Healthy Habits

Isolation from Temptation

It can be difficult to maintain habits when the structures that maintain our routines have dissolved. However, in glass-half-full manner, another way to look at this moment is the opportunity to restructure your life. There are any number of unhealthy habits that can develop without the structures to which we are accustomed. However, the positive side of isolation, for many people, is that they are also insulated from sources of bad habits.  

For example, before the pandemic, I had the bad habit of spending too much money eating out at restaurants. I particularly enjoyed eating at the restaurant and people-watching. While restaurants are still open, social-distancing has obliged me to prepare my own food at home instead of spending money at a restaurant. Eating at home has also compelled me to eat healthier.

Space for New Habits

Isolation or social distancing also creates new space to build healthy habits. Think of the time that you have gained not having to travel to and from school or work. This could mean an hour or two – or more – of extra time in your day. You could use this extra time to schedule in exercise, yoga, or meditation. Beyond this, social-distancing and remote school and work also creates a sort of regularity (you could be at home all day) that makes it easier to maintain routines.

Use your extra time spent at home during the pandemic to make space for new habits.

The healthiest habits to focus on building or maintaining involve:

  • Sleeping well (and long enough);
  • Eating well;
  • Doing physical activities (this is critical for students whose work is completely sedentary);
  • Taking time to decompress (meditating, taking time for quiet calm contemplation, taking a bath, listening to calming music, etc.); and
  • Maintaining physical upkeep (hygiene) habits.
woman doing a yoga pose
Photo by k. vega on Unsplash

Explore New Pastimes

Breaking with Mundanity

One of the most mind-numbing aspects of the pandemic is the mundanity. I personally enjoy working from home and work hard to make my home my sanctuary, but even I get tired of the monotony. When there is nothing new to look forward to, it can be difficult to muster energy for the day. Exploring new pastimes is a great way to break this banality and conjure excitement and vitality.

As with making new habits, one way to look at studying and/or working remotely is that it frees up time you would have spent traveling which can now be utilized for other activities that you may not normally have time for. I would suggest dedicating at least 30 minutes a day to a pastime you enjoy. If you’re too busy during the week, dedicate an hour or two over the weekends to do something you enjoy.

Find Inspiration

Find an activity that involves some element of creativity. Not only will this activity get you excited about your life, but acts of creativity are also inspiring, creativity-enhancing (creativity in one form stimulates creativity in other forms), and a great way to reduce stress. Research has validated the use of art therapy in combating anxiety by allowing for a mediated exploration into and release for emotions. While I enjoy painting on canvas with acrylics, a more regular pastime of mine is cooking. I love exploring new recipes and testing out novel spice combinations.

Find an activity that involves some element of creativity. Whatever pastime you choose, make sure it is something you enjoy, and something that gets you energized and sparks creativity.

Whatever pastime you choose, make sure it is something you enjoy, and something that gets you energized and sparks creativity. Set aside a definite time every day, or at least every week, dedicated to this activity. Even if you have other things you would rather be (or feel like you should be) doing, make time for this creative outlet. Taking time to break from the demands of school, work, and life to do something for yourself is key to emotional and psychological health.

Maintain Connections

While you should absolutely use this unique moment as an opportunity to restructure those aspects of your life that you have wanted to change, keep in mind that it is also very important to maintain stability and normalcy in your life. Right now, many of the social structures that we are used to, and which orient and shape our lives are on hiatus. One of the most important social structures anyone has is their network of friends and family members.

As someone who lives alone (not to mention about four states away from my family and close friends), keeping in touch with my family and friends, and making time during the week for regular phone dates, has been a necessity. Without regular interaction with family and close friends – even if it’s via phone or a Zoom call – it is easy to feel isolated and alienated, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. Talking — decompressing, catching up, and laughing — with those you love acts as a release valve for stress and provides a sense of comfort and support.

Talking — decompressing, catching up, and laughing — with those you love acts as a release valve for stress and provides a sense of comfort and support.

Even if you live with your loved ones, the demands of school, work, and life can make it difficult to spend time with those you care about. In fact, living with family and close friends may actually make you take their presence for granted and spend less time with them than someone who lives alone or far from their kin. Try to set aside time each day to talk to your family or close friends if only for 15 minutes to say “hello”. If you have your own family (partner and/or kids), make sure to set aside your evenings – or at least a few hours in your evening – to spend quality time with them.

Conclusion

We are living in strange times. Uncertainty is the word of the day. On top of the significant stress of school, work, and life, there is the added stress of the pandemic: the threat of infection and the economic and societal fluctuations that are resulting from the pandemic and the social-distancing and isolation that it requires. Uncertainty can be stressful, but by maintaining stability and structure where possible, you can reduce stress and take advantage of the opportunity in front of you to re-vamp your life and habits.

The archetype for this moment is the phoenix rising from the ashes: out of destruction comes reconstitution.

I am a firm believer that reality is shaped by perception and that we have the agency to shape our perceptions. The trick is to see the glass half-full: focus on the positive opportunities that can arise out of this moment of uncertainty and lack of structure. The archetype for this moment is the phoenix rising from the ashes: out of destruction comes reconstitution.

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