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All students will stress, to some degree, during their studies. That’s because stress is a natural, physical response that helps your brain and body cope with demanding, challenging and dangerous situations. Stress isn’t always a bad thing, though, sometimes it can be a positive. Perhaps you’ve noticed that you work best under pressure and that the stress boosts your performance at university, like during your presentation in front of the class or when you must submit multiple assignments in the same week.

At other times, though, stress can be harmful especially if it prolongs or intensifies. When the challenge becomes too hard, when you’re suffering from burnout or when all the worrying starts to distract you from your studies, the stress takes a mental, emotional and physical toll on you. When this happens, some of us turn to friends and classmates to get some form of relief from it. Whatever we end up doing with them helps us break away from the pressure because the activity makes us feel good, makes us happy. At least for a little while. But it works.

But what happens when COVID-19 forces you to temporarily break up with the people who support you? Self-imposed isolation and social distancing can stress you out even more, making you feel down, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed or all of these combined.

You start questioning the logic behind social distancing:

Why am I doing this? This feels like prison. I’m sure I’ll be fine if I just go to the mall for an hour. But wait, I’m too scared to go out.

It’s understandable … your social habits have suddenly changed!

You just try your hardest to soldier on and make it through to the other side of the pandemic. I needed to change my social habits as well after I quit my job in 2014 to become a full-time freelancer. I went solo to give me the opportunity to restructure my life and make time for my PhD.

Having worked from home since and now doing it part time to allow me to do my PhD full time, I know firsthand that working from home isn’t as luxurious as some people think.

I don’t sit around doing nothing. I also don’t have employees or PhD colleagues sitting 1.5m away who I can chat with about my weekend or share email funny memes with.

I don’t have anyone here to congratulate me when I do something great or to buy me a cake for my birthday. And I don’t have anyone to at home vent to when I stuff up.

It can be quite isolating. And lonely.

Some students tell me that having an office pet helps, but I’m living in a rental, plus I don’t think I have time for a pet right now. One day.

But because students are being encouraged to exercise social distancing and self-isolation for their own safety, the best thing to do is try your best to cope with the resources available to you.

None of us can afford to crack under all this pressure. We can’t afford to curl up in bed and cry. We can’t afford to give up. After all, it’s “no uni, no degree”. Right?

So, if you’ve never done the whole social distancing thing before, here are some of the strategies that work for me and that helped me to stay home on my own and take care of myself:

For studies and other work

  • Use social media apps to connect with your support persons. If you would usually meet up with relatives, friends and classmates for a chat, you can still do it via video through free mobile apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.
  • Stay virtually connected and productive for group assignments. This ensures you don’t fall behind nor let your mates down. Use Zoom to make video calls and share your screens, Google Docs editors to allow everyone work on the same document at the same time in real time, and Trello to assign tasks to each person and keep them accountable. You could also create a Facebook Group for each assignment group.
  • Keep in touch with your lecturers and tutors. Although they’re likely already working from home, your lecturers and tutors might still be reachable via email. If you’re struggling with your work, I recommend that you contact them sooner rather than later. Be honest and explain what you’re going through and let them know whether you can still meet all the due dates and achieve all milestones.

For dealing with the stress

  • Let your studies distract you. In the interests of promoting social distancing, Curtin has closed lecture venues and will deliver online-only lectures via iLecture and is preparing to offer most of its programs online. All campus events have also been cancelled. This is so you don’t have to go to campus. You’re doing the right thing staying home.
  • Do something else. When you can no longer concentrate on your assignments, find something else you can do that would take your mind off whatever is stressing you out. Netflix, cleaning, exercising and cooking are some of my go-to activities when my head starts to get foggy or when I need a break to help me transition from one task to another.
  • Unplug from the ‘scary’ news. Do this as much as possible. Quit scrolling through every COVID-19 article, watching every COVID-19 video or joining every COVID-19 chat. Of course, you should keep up with the news, but if it’s driving you nuts, then just check in once or twice a day.
  • Get good-quality sleep where you feel rested afterwards. Sleep is said to be especially important during the study period. If you want to sleep well, don’t check your email, social media notifications and SMSs right before bed. If you do, you’re bound to find something about COVID-19.
  • Remind yourself why you’re doing social distancing. The downside to distancing from others or going in complete isolation is outweighed by the advantages of being home on your own during this pandemic. Social distancing, we’ve been told, is the safest thing to do right now.
  • Connect with other students who are in the same situation. Remind yourself that you’re not alone. Yes, you’re in self-isolation, but you’re not the only one. There are other students going through the same thing. Don’t feel bad or ashamed. Instead, go on social media and connect with them and share your experiences and coping strategies. The more you talk about it, the less stressed you might feel.
  • If it’s all getting too much, if you feel unable to cope with your studies or wish to defer, please contact the university as soon as possible.

PSA: Coming from overseas? Students returning from overseas must contact Curtin Connect to let them know when you commenced and/or completed your 14 days of self-isolation.

If this article has raised issues for you or you know someone who needs help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or your GP, a local health professional or someone you trust.