Navigating Mental Health in the COVID-19 Era

Nascent Transcript Author: Anna Miller

Source: Carbon Arc/ Flicker. Licensed Under Creative Commons

With “Stay at Home” orders in effect and the slow process of reopening, we spoke with Simona Mkrtschjan, a Clinical Social Worker at Case Western Reserve University, in late April about navigating our mental health.

Some people struggle with feeling like they’re not accomplishing enough each day. How do we cope with these feelings and practice setting realistic goals?
If you are prone to having these feelings, you might be extra vulnerable to them during this period of social distancing. If you’re a person who uses this kind of prodding self-talk to inspire action, try to find other, kinder ways to motivate yourself. In terms of
goal setting, it might be helpful to check in with a trusted peer or mentor about what a reasonable day might look like. “I’m going to workout every single day” may not be a reasonable goal for someone who has not regularly worked out. Planning to walk on three days out of the week is a more realistic start. This period of social distancing may bring with it some extra time saved by not having to commute. But the entire experience is also taking up a lot of energy in and of itself. Most are not feeling a sense of extra time at all. Your routine has been upended and
you are using energy to figure out how to respond to new demands and circumstances. And, probably, like most adults, you are worrying about things you haven’t needed to worry about before.

How can people struggling with work-life balance find good separation when working from home?
Not everyone has a spare room in which to work, so setting up other kinds of boundaries will have to do. Decide on and stick with a regular time to end your workday and mark it with a walk, or dinner prep, or a FaceTime call with a friend. Work will often fill all available space if you haven’t anchored non-work events in your schedule.

What can people do to focus better on the task at hand?
If you ask most people what the most productive time of day is for them, they’ll usually be able to tell you what it is. When you’ve determined it, protect those hours. Don’t schedule meetings that can be avoided during that time; instead, use it to give your best shot at focusing on the most taxing things on your to-do list.

What are good mental health habits we can try to gain during this time?
Flexibility and self-compassion, but especially self-compassion. Sometimes very driven people make the mistake of thinking that self-compassion is the same thing as avoiding challenges or giving up. But self-compassion is the opposite of avoidance. It’s an open-eyed, open-hearted perspective toward yourself and your circumstances. Give yourself the grace that you would give a cherished friend.

How can graduate students manage their PIs expectations during these stressful times?
Each PI-graduate student relationship is different but in general, you will both be served by clarifying goals early and often. If you are a person who copes with stress by avoiding your stressors, this approach will be a bit more challenging for you, so you must be deliberate. Set times in your calendar to provide updates. Misunderstandings about expectations happen when each party assumes the other knows more than they do. Frequent check-ins help ensure that you both are dealing with the same set of facts as you two collaborate on renegotiating goals. I also strongly encourage consulting with one another as soon as there is a problem. Raising flags early serves the same purpose of the updates–keeping you both on the same page.

How can we be a better colleague to our labmates?
Now as always, communication and curiosity foster good working relationships. Check-in with one another. Recognize that, in the age of social distancing, being a bit redundant in messaging is probably more helpful than annoying. So, send an email twice if you need to.

How do we better cope with changes in our workplace/schedules and maintain healthy habits while dealing with this stress?
One of the ways to promote your own flexibility is to begin by identifying the challenges to which we reflexively say “I can’t” and switching that language from a declaration to a question. You will find you are more able to creatively imagine solutions to your problems if you leave yourself the mental space afforded by the question, “I wonder how I can…?”

*Answers have been edited for brevity

Image from Carbon Arc and, modified by the author.

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