Support for university students during COVID-19: How to be kind to yourself during these challenging times (Part 1), by Dr Inês Mendes

Support for university students during COVID-19: How to be kind to yourself during these challenging times (Part 1), by Dr Inês Mendes

This time of year is usually very stressful for most students, but particularly so this year. We’re dealing with a new online teaching and exam format, and some of us are facing other personal difficulties that make it even more challenging and stressful. Most of us are currently facing challenges related to Covid-19, including losing social supports, and facing difficulties in our home environments (e.g. living in isolation, with others in very small places, or not in the quietest atmosphere). Each individual also has their own personal challenges, such as physical and/or mental health difficulties that may have deteriorated as a consequence of the current pandemic.

These challenges and changes may be causing increased anxiety and/or low mood in our daily lives. Some of us may experience this more intensively and others more mildly, some all the time, and others only at certain times (e.g. specific time of the day). Therefore, it is important, more than ever, to consider skills that may help alleviate the experience of these difficult emotions and promote our wellbeing. There is a not a one size fits all solution, and there are several skills that are helpful to deal with our emotional state. Today, I will focus on self-compassion, how it can be a protective factor against mental health difficulties, and how you can start practising it.

Self-compassion – What is it?

Self-compassion has been empirically supported as a resilience factor that protects against mental health difficulties (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012; Trompetter, Kleine, & Bohlmeijer, 2017). Being self-compassionate involves being kind, understanding, and supportive towards oneself in moments of distress and pain. Self-compassion is an alternative response to perceived failure and associated negative emotions. Self-compassion allows us to deal with difficult emotions in different ways. Instead of running away from our pain, trying to hide it somewhere inside ourselves, avoiding it, denying it, or distracting from it, we can learn to “sit” with our emotions, acknowledge them, and tolerate them. This adaptive way of dealing with negative emotions alleviates mental health difficulties and promotes wellbeing. Developing self-compassion as a resilient factor enables us to adapt to challenging situations, such as the one we are living now, and allows us to be able to overcome adversity.

Let’s take a moment to imagine one of our dearest friends who is struggling. A friend who is worried and stressing about their assessments, who finds it hard to study at home because they don’t have space. ‘It’s too loud at home, there are too many distractions, and no privacy, making concentration a herculean task.’

What would you say to your friend who is struggling? What would you say to your friend who is finding it hard to concentrate, to study? What would you say to your friend who has their mind wandering all the time, worried with what is happening or might happen? Would you say: “just stop being lazy and focus”, “what is wrong with you?”, “you’ll never amount to anything.”? If you truly empathise and care for you friend, you certainly wouldn’t.

Nevertheless, these are some of the things we can tell ourselves when we’re trying to work or study, and we’re not meeting the goals we have imposed on ourselves. The pressure to achieve will lead some of us to experience a constant sense of inadequacy and negative thoughts, such as: “I am at home all the time; I should do more”, or “I need to read all the essential reading. But I can’t move on from the first page, I just can’t concentrate, I keep trying and my mind immediately starts to wander…”. We can get caught in this over-thinking pattern that intensifies negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness). Is it fair to put those demands and strain on ourselves?

Other circumstances can also contribute to similar feelings. Going on social media and seeing posts from those who have been productive and successful amidst the current health crisis can make us feel worse if we aren’t able to be as productive, and can fuel all those negative thoughts and emotions.

Others are battling loneliness as a consequence of an act of true love – to protect their loved ones. Those who have caring responsibilities are putting their loved ones as their main priority, and hence are not meeting the demands of other responsibilities, such as studying. Helping parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and children takes so much time, yet we may still expect ourselves to perform at the same level as we used to academically. Others are facing the hardship of the economic strain where a source of income in the household was lost due to this pandemic.

So, these are not the times to set up all these goals for accomplishing so many things, because that is just imposing even more challenges and demands on ourselves, putting us at a higher risk of sensing that we are failing. It’s OKAY not be okay, and it’s okay if we don’t meet the standards we put on ourselves at the beginning of the academic year. But it is hard to accept this! Yes, it is, very hard. But it’s even harder to keep trying to reach the standards we set before everything changed, particularly without being aware of and acknowledging how hard it is now. Are you aware of all the demands you are putting on yourself? Are you aware of beating yourself up for all the things you have not accomplished? This is the time to allow ourselves to be human, to fail to meet our standards, which are usually too high anyway. Recognising this and acknowledging our pain is an act of kindness. This may be the first step to start being compassionate and kind with ourselves.

Source: Gilbert, P. (2013). The compassionate mind. London: Robinson.

See Part 2 of this two-part blog series for advice on how to build your compassionate space.