When it looked like the UK would go on lockdown, final year student Jia Wei Lee knew she had to stay in her student house in Wales, away from her home country of Malaysia. It was a difficult decision, but with a dissertation to write and a student visa to worry about, Lee decided to isolate in Treforest, where she studies biology and conservation at the University of Wales.
“It feels like we’re a community but we are separated by walls. I realised that I didn’t want to dwell on suffering,” she says. “I want to bring this community closer together – breaking the virtual barriers between everyone.”
Lee started posting videos on social media to share life hacks – some useful (like tips for folding clothes in three seconds) and some not so conventionally helpful (how to make a slingshot from a rubber band).
It’s one of the ways Lee has learned to cope on lockdown, as just one of thousands of students in the UK who are now isolating in university halls and student accommodation.
With around one in seven people experiencing distress associated with lockdown, we asked students and psychologists for their tips on how to get through this difficult period.
Create a routine …
Setting a routine is vital for your wellbeing. Professor Kevin Morgan, sleep expert at Loughborough University, warns that you shouldn’t use sleep “as a counter-product to boredom”. He says it’s critical to get out of bed at a normal time in the morning.
Although all the usual life cues are gone – like lectures, or meeting friends – we need to keep the things that synchronise our body clocks, Morgan says, such as meal times, recreation, and winding down in the evening.
Keeping a routine not only helps with sleep but will keep you motivated, says survival psychologist Dr Sarita Robinson, from the University of Central Lancashire. “People in extreme environments can survive and come out mentally intact because they have appropriate coping mechanisms. A structured plan can be really helpful in keeping you motivated, so you don’t just fall away into feeling listless and depressed.”
… and include time to study
Build studying into your routine. Mike Leaf, a final year geoscience student at Keele University, advises giving yourself deadlines. Setting yourself a goal of finishing a chapter of a project by the weekend, for example, will “keep you focused without guidance from supervisors.”
Lee says she checks in with friends to keep on task. She calls them her accountability buddies. “We motivate each other to finish our aims for the day.”
Set goals, but no pressure
Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to achieve. This is an unprecedented time, and “it’s absolutely OK to not be OK at the moment,” Robinson says. It’s good to have goals, she adds – “but my goals aren’t things like I’m going to write a high-impact journal. My goals are finishing that jigsaw, or spending an hour learning how to dance the Charleston. Low-level goals keep you motivated.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out
See what support is on offer at your university or students’ union. Robinson says: “It’s about reassuring students that we’re here for them. There is a lot of support, especially for international students unable to travel home, or students estranged from families.”
Call your friends and family, and arrange virtual pub quizzes or games. “If you’re a person who enjoys social contact, then it’s about trying to find a new way to connect,” she adds.
Morgan says the key is to get outside to exercise. “Get out and do a sensible amount of exercise when the sun is bright. Tell your physiology that it’s daylight. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can exercise yourself to sleep – you can’t, but what you can do is relieve some of the stresses that would otherwise accumulate through a confined environment.”
Exercise doesn’t have to be a workout. “It can mean moderate walking. It can simply mean being outdoors, raising your heart rate at about 50%,” he says.
Lee adds: “Whenever I feel anxious, I make sure to get out of the house and take my one hour of exercise. I can take a breather. It’s about listening to your body.”
Get in touch with nature – inside or out
The mental health benefits from interacting with green space are huge. If you can, go for a walk in a park or garden. But if that’s not possible, bring the garden inside instead. “Try virtual tours,” suggests Robinson. ”Just looking at green scenery has been shown to be beneficial. Growing things is also very therapeutic.”
Extensive research suggests gardening helps reduce anxiety and stress-related symptoms. You can still grow plants if you’re living in one room in block halls. Herbs such as coriander or rosemary are good for windowsills, and you can even get a (free) houseplant after eating an avocado. Fill a glass with water, and put toothpicks in the avocado stone to suspend it on the rim, so the bottom half rests in water. Make sure it has sunlight, and when the stone sprouts, pot some compost and watch it grow.
Change perspective …
“If you start thinking that you’re stuck in your room, that can be quite demoralising. Rephrase it to ‘I’m safe in my room, I’ve got opportunities to do things that I can concentrate on,’” Robinson says.
… and try new things
Many exercise classes, social activities, concerts, and theatre shows are taking place online, so there will always be something to keep you busy. See if your favourite artist or comedian is livestreaming a gig. Or use this time to discover new experiences, whether it’s cooking, gaming, or going to the theatre (virtually). There are resources to help you find these new and mostly free experiences. For example, Cheapskate newsletter, which normally lists affordable things to do in London, is now collating the week’s best free indoor activities, from digital art tours to “e-life drawing” workshops.