Finishing a PhD during lockdown with a toolbox of coping strategies

Written by Prudence Atukunda, PhD research fellow, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo (UiO). The author has been granted COVID-19 fundings through Centre for Healthcare Education (UiO).

In a situation of a sudden life change, one needs to have some coping strategies in order to maintain a healthy mental state and well-being.

Students extra vulnerable for changes
So, what is a copying strategy? It can easiest be explained as a series of actions used when meeting stressful situations. The overall goal of a coping strategy should aim at promoting one´s feeling of happiness in everyday life.

Such coping strategies are perhaps especially valuable for students, as students are extra vulnerable for changes of economic and social nature. This especially goes for international students, located far from family and known environments.

To the students out there, getting out and finding out what one is surrounded with is worthwhile. It makes life a little easier. Those in student villages can reach out to their colleagues and participate in various activities. There are Facebook groups that have very useful information on several outdoor activities that offer help to individual mental health at times when studies and life out of school feel stressful.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemics and the following lockdown affected the lives of many students. As a foreign student in Norway, I have made my own experiences and I hereby propose various activities that one can engage in, from hands-on personal experience.

The toolbox of coping strategies

Yoga and mindfulness meditation
The beauty of mindfulness training is that it transcends beyond yoga styles. The skills are easily self-taught and can help you to get motivated to continue during a crisis. For example, during the total school lockdown I taught myself the basics of the practice and how to apply them in lockdown. This coping strategy can be learnt by anyone interested in harnessing and improving his or her mental health state. The beauty with this is that meditation brings calm and focused attention to the endless stream of thoughts floating through in one’s mind. This strategy enabled me to reduce stress and increased my productivity.

Writing is therapeutic. For example, writing poems is known to have several benefits, including improved cognitive function, learning new words, finding new ways to articulate thoughts and creating good feelings for the brain. In addition, it also helps heal emotional pain, express love and affection, leads us to greater self-awareness, and provides a gift of inspiration for others. For example, during this time of COVID-19, I chose to dedicate time each day to write a poem. Between 30 March and 11 May 2020, I have daily written down a poem. My poems have featured different topics, including the pandemic, weather, trees, birds, the Oslo fjord, the immune system to name but a few.

Spending time in nature
While in Norway, I learnt that “When an English prince took his new love on a romantic getaway, he chose a cabin holiday in Norway. He’s not the only one, Norwegians flock to the mountains and more new cabins are being built than ever before. I myself had the opportunity to visit a “hytte” (cabin) in Nordmarka in Oslo during lockdown. Thus, I got intrigued into looking at the COVID-19 lockdown as a gateway into the Norwegian mountain cabins used as a symbol of the simple life outside of town. In addition, one can include fishing and camping out in the wilderness as an essential part of the “hytte” experience.

Interacting with the wilderness is worth the initiative, especially during a crisis such as lockdown. It is such an amazing get-away and a way to find peace and quiet. Imagine a walk from one amazing viewpoint to another, ending at forest lakes perfect for a swim or just finding berries and other goodies nature offers. I believe this is a gift to almost everyone going out there and spending time with nature’s gifts.

Almost all countries are blessed with beautiful birds. These amazing animals can be experienced through hiking trips in the forest. One can learn to identify birds’ gender through colour, sound and behaviour, and to see rare birds, as for example the national birds of a country. I personally saw the Norwegian national bird called the Cinclus Cinclus, fossekall in Norwegian (white-throated dipper), woodpeckers, little grebe, common divers, pigeons, gulls, and many more.

Seasonal activities
Seasons come and go, thus one should move along as life unfolds in various seasons. A season that offers planting opportunities, when one can grow plants and flowers, adds benefits like the ability to learn different flower types and names. In my own experience I learned about the various margarita flowers, mixed fairly primrose, forget me not flowers (scorpion grass), purple heather, which is one of the national flowers of Norway. This crowned my coping strategies during the lockdown. The flowers paint a very great image of the strength that lies within a given society and the togetherness.

Finishing a thesis during lockdown
It was through these coping strategies that I successfully had my final paper published and wrote my thesis to completion and delivered it to the university. The process that started when the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented is all ending with a PhD thesis defence in October. This would not have been possible if I did not come up with a coping mechanism plan.

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