As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to sweep the globe, universities, schools and other educational institutions have been forced to close their doors, affecting over 89% of the world’s student population (estimated figures by UNESCO). If you’re one of these students, your entire student world may have recently been turned upside down.

When the academic year started last autumn, you probably focused on creating a strong academic and social life. If you’d just started university, your time was likely all about making friends, finding your way around the campus, and maybe adjusting to a new level of personal freedom. If you’re an upper year student, you’d have been re-connecting with friends you hadn’t seen all summer. You went to class, you did your coursework (maybe in groups) and worked towards meeting your deadlines. Maybe you had a job or a volunteer position; maybe you played on a sports team or joined a social club…

Regardless of what you used to do, today’s normal is anything but. Every day you are now bombarded by news stories showing exponential growth, or the number of dead, or any of the other awful circumstances that are occurring as the result of coronavirus. When the autumn term started, you had never heard of ‘COVID-19’ – now you can’t get through a day without thinking about it.

With things changing daily, or sometimes even hourly, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Whenever a situation becomes too much (and this goes for most other aspects of life), remember to focus on what you can do, not on what you cannot. Doing so will give you a sense of control and may be a helpful distraction from the things that cause you anxiety.

To help you as a student during these turbulent times, this blog post looks at some things you can do and can control in a situation that seems to be ever-changing.

The extent of change

Owing to the unprecedented global impact of coronavirus, there are likely many things that feel out of your control. Perhaps you’ve moved home, with little time to say bye to friends. Maybe ‘studying’ for you now means being interrupted twenty times an hour by your parents and siblings. Perhaps your lectures have all moved online, and your exams have changed (or have been cancelled or postponed). You might have you’ve worked hard for years to walk the stage only to have your convocation cancelled.

These are very real and very difficult changes. Change in itself is hard, and it is made even harder when it is being forced on you without any alternatives. It is okay to be sad or mad or frustrated; these feelings are totally legitimate and quite rightly justified.

But, here’s a positive spin: at this point in time, on this very day, there is absolutely nothing you can do about any of the above challenges, but there are ways that you can manage elements in your life to regain control.

Now you might think – I can email my professor and ask for a different grading scheme, or I can email my Dean and demand that graduation be reinstated, even if postponed. Yes, you could do these things, but the answers you will likely be given (i.e. no) may push you even further into despair.

Hopefully, at least once in your academic career, someone has mentioned the word resilience. If you haven’t heard this before, resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. If you were ever going to need resilience, now is the time. As we mentioned before, staying focused on what can do, and not on what you cannot, will help you hugely. Resilience is about remaining positive, with a ‘can do’ attitude.

So, let’s look at some of the things you can do, starting today:

You can: make the most of online courses

Students and lecturers up and down the country (and across the world) have suddenly had the clunky, awkward task of virtual lectures thrust upon them. You may be realising how technologically inept many of your professors are. For many of them, this is the first time that they have delivered online courses, and while many of them will get support from educational developers at their respective universities, their navigation through the different options of materials may seem strange. Lecturing to a computer monitor is very different from speaking in front of a class, and so things might be somewhat more awkward than you had experienced in the classroom.

Have patience – and while that doesn’t seem fair to say when you have paid a whole lot of money for an education, the majority of your professors are trying their best as they cope with their new normal. Take a moment to laugh when, during an online lecture, your professor’s dog strolls across the screen, or when you can hear screaming children in the background through the microphone. Take comfort in the fact that your professors, despite having years of experience, are struggling too.

Laughing at your professors’ blunders is only possible, however, if you are actually watching and/or remotely attending the lectures. There is certainly more accountability when you are expected to show up to lectures at the same time every week and engage in the material. There is a sense of structure knowing that for two hours on a Thursday afternoon you and your peers are meeting for your lesson. Even though university, ordinarily, is less structured than say, college or sixth form, online lectures are a whole different world. The virtual set-up removes you even further from that structured environment and give you almost exclusive power of when and how hard you will work.

So, the first suggestion for making the most of online classes is:

1. Be present at every lecture and do the homework

It is so easy with online classes to say – oh, I will just watch the lesson later. But missing lectures – even virtually – is not something you want to start doing. 'Later' turns into tomorrow, and tomorrow turns into next week, and now you are two weeks behind and things start to feel overwhelming.

Stop the cycle. If you used to have lecture for two hours on a Thursday, try and stick to that schedule. Create a weekly diary and set yourself times when you watch lectures, take notes and do the homework. Then stick to that plan. Don’t deviate, or you may find yourself on that slippery ‘falling behind’ slope.

Now would also be a great time to brush up on your lecture note-taking skills, as you'll need to really hone this skill now you're working in a virtual environment.

2. Establish a routine

While not missing out on lectures is important, it is only one element of your life. It is so easy to stay up late or spend an extra hour (or two) in bed when you would have normally been up and out the door on time.

It's essential you create a routine and stick to it, to maintain some normality and help with motivation. Try to keep to the same hours you had while you were going to campus. Get enough sleep. When you do get up, do the same things that you normally would: take a shower and get dressed (yes, that means shifting out of your pyjamas). Once you have eaten a (healthy) breakfast, find a quiet place to study, away from distractions. If this means building a makeshift desk area in your family home garage, then so be it. If that’s not possible, invest in some noise-cancelling headphones and play non-distracting music.

Your online courses, despite being virtual, still contain the same challenging topics that you had back when lectures and tutorials were in person. So you need to be able to focus. Design your schedule so that you are able to take frequent, short breaks (e.g. study 20 minutes, take a five-minute break), which will help you to maintain focus on the challenging materials you are learning.

You can: get better at self-discipline

There are two elements to self-discipline: motivation and dedication. Motivation, for online courses, is the willingness to get started every day, whereas dedication is the grit you have to see it through to the end. Achieving both motivation or dedication can be hard, especially as things like isolation and the daily news can negatively affect your mental health. In terms of the news, it is easy to get caught up in the stories or to worry about the numbers.

If you are easily distracted or if you have high levels of anxiety, perhaps limiting your news viewing habits to once a day (in the early evening after you have achieved all your daily goals, but not so late that it keeps you awake at night) is the best option. This also applies to social media, as going through your feeds can lead to procrastination, taking you away from your goals.

You can: find ways to de-stress

If isolation, worrisome headlines and your energetic younger siblings (oh to be back on campus in your own space again!) are causing you stress, it’s time to shake things up and adopt some self-care. Self-discipline habits that can help you feel less alone, even when you might physically be by yourself, are a good option.

1. Get outside
Depending on your level of lockdown or recommended social distancing, this may not always be possible. But if you can get out in the fresh air, do it. Get out for a brisk walk every day – a jog, some sprints or other form of high-cardio exercise is even better. Your brain and body will thrive off the endorphins, and the change of scenery will be good for your mental wellbeing. Just be sure to keep your distance from others, of course, and maintain recommended levels of hygiene.

2. Eat right, drink right
This may sound quite obvious, but there are actually foods and food groups that can help your brain function optimally and boost your mood. These same foods also have multiple benefits to the health of your body – an added bonus. There are a myriad articles on the web to guide you, like this one which advises upping your intake of, principally: omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, whole grains, leafy green veggies and foods high in vitamin D.

Don't forget to drink plenty of water, too – it’s not just good for your body, but has also been proven to increase your ability to concentrate.

3. Meditate to accumulate... positive energy

Done right, meditation actually changes the brain’s structure and function. For example, it enlarges certain structures within the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for rational decision-making. It also decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), which is responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. In other words, there is good evidence suggesting that meditation can dampen our feelings of stress and anxiety, as well as depression.

4. Take up a new hobby

Many people find certain hobbies not just therapeutic, but also rewarding. This powerful combination of mindfulness (when you are focused on being present and ‘in the moment’) and success at building upon or making better whatever hobby or skill you are practising (endorphin release) makes for a very pleasurable and beneficial experience indeed. There are an endless number of activities to choose from, but opting for something calming that requires focus – such as gardening, jigsaw puzzles, knitting, or learning a new instrument – are highly advised.

You can: stay connected

When you’re in limited contact with other people physically, make sure you find time to connect with loved ones virtually. Set up a schedule to talk to your friends and family that aren’t living with you.

Free options like Zoom or Hangouts make virtual group chats easy, and for more fun and lightheartedness look into apps such as Houseparty. Check in with loved ones often, as they are probably feeling the same way you are. Make sure, however, that you balance your work with your free-time, as too much socialising can lead to procrastination.

You can: get help when you need it

While your friends would have normally been around to answer your questions when you ran into trouble, and your professors would have held office hours to help with challenging concepts, these things are not as easily accessible in this new online, socially isolated model.

But just because they are not obviously accessible, doesn’t mean that they don’t still exist. Your professor may be holding online office hours, or if not, he or she will be accessible by email. They also want to make sure that you are feeling supported and that you’re learning the material you need to learn. So, talk to them – even if you have never been to office hours before, this is your opportunity. In some ways, it’s less daunting than going in person because you are behind a computer screen or an email, which sets in another level of distance. Take this distance and use it to your advantage. Get clarification on things that you don’t understand and be proactive whenever possible. You may also have a TA for the course; they are also usually willing to help, so take advantage of their support too.

As you work towards the end of the semester, you may have assignments due. If you need help with those, there are lots of possible options. You can get support from a peer, colleague or expert, and you can take advantage of the writing centres that your campus has. Those writing instructors are likely still working – albeit remotely – and can offer guidance on how to improve your assignment, even if it is through an online format. Remember, Oxbridge Essays is always a great place to turn if you need help with specific assignments and want to relieve some of the stress of multiple, imminent deadlines.

Key takeaway…

There are so many things out there that are beyond your control; you are restricted both physically and emotionally because you can no longer do the things that were once second nature. You’ve likely experienced feelings of sadness and insecurity about what to do next. The media perpetuates a cycle of, often sensationalist, news that makes it difficult to maintain composure. This is compounded by uncertainty as to when the measures taken to contain this virus will end – are we here for weeks, months, longer..?

While you cannot answer these questions at the moment, you can focus on today. You can focus on getting up, getting dressed, and setting yourself some manageable goals that hold you accountable, even if it is only to yourself. Try to remain positive and look at the changes as mini goals that you can overcome. You can do it. You can acknowledge the changes and work towards modifying your behaviour to achieve success. Such success is not created overnight; it is built slowly, day by day. So, start today. What will you do first?