PhDs, Coronavirus and Emotional Stress

Guest Blogger Jessica Reid talks about her experience in lockdown so far.

Coronavirus hasn’t affected everyone equally, but it has affected everyone. Even if you’re used to working from home, have all the materials you need, are in your native country, have no caring responsibilities, are free of pre-existing (mental and physical) health conditions, and are financially secure. Coronavirus is that blank space with the instruction ‘insert worst nightmare here’. We are all subject to the current climate of emotional stress.

For PhD students, it can feel like we should continue working as normal. A few people have told me how perfect lockdown will be for my thesis, that I’m going to get so much work done. I do think PhD researchers are better equipped than most; we’re used to managing ourselves. I’ve already found myself explaining the Pomodoro method to friends with ‘normal’ jobs. But part of me envies these friends; oh, to be set a defined task (preferably a mechanical one).


Growing some salad – productive and relaxing! 

I have good days and bad days. On good ones I get up at 7am and leave my phone off for the first few hours, thereby creating a bubble of bleary-eyed ignorance. I have actually written some words in these hours and I think they might even be good ones. Bad days involve lots of aimless scrolling until I inevitably succumb to the siren song of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. These activities are much maligned, but it’s okay, and necessary, to numb yourself occasionally.

Sometimes watching conference presentations on YouTube diverts my attention back to the subject matter which fascinates me. Listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 also gets me in the intellectual zone, as does reading things not directly related to my research but in roughly the same ballpark. I’ve found an unexpected tonic in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. However, it’s important we acknowledge that under crisis conditions, our ability to think big, be creative and perform the conceptual work of the PhD is compromised.

We are all of us periodically in fight, flight or freeze. In this state, your brain finds it’s far harder to focus your attention and learn new things (disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist, but I did once read a book about trauma). Remember that next time you give yourself a hard time for struggling to concentrate on the ordinarily work-at-home-friendly tasks of reading, writing and thinking. It’s okay to need time off. Most people manage two or three hours’ high-concentration activity per day at the best of times. Pre-corona, I aimed for four. Now I aim for two and try not to be disappointed if I only make it half an hour before my attention goes off-piste.

Exercise helps. No scientific research necessary; many’s the morning Yoga with Adriene has rescued me from chasing my own tail. I’ve also finally got into my groove with meditation. It’s not the answer to everything and can be catastrophic when already in a state of panic. For beginners, I’d suggest spending five or ten minutes looking out your window. When your mind wanders, reconnect with the present moment with focus on the out-breath. I find it helpful to begin by noticing how I’m feeling, without going into explanations. You could even wish yourself well, happy and free from suffering if you’re feeling spicy.

At the moment, every day is different and some days it isn’t feasible to just get on with it. Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt anxious, sad, bewildered, angry, extremely fortunate, loving, grateful, and joyful. These are exceptionally stressful times, akin to collective grief. When we find ways to keep working, we should celebrate that. But sometimes the only thing for it is to collapse in a heap. Or to spend the afternoon baking banana bread and streaming Tiger King on Netflix. When faced with intense emotions, it’s important to honour them, rather than push them away. I’m reminded of a passage in Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Mud, No Lotus, he writes that, ‘An emotion is something that comes and stays for a while and eventually goes away.’

About Jessica

Jessica is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where she researches the writing of Thomas St. Serfe (1624-70). You can find more of her writing on Instagram @booksbybroads.

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