The situation we currently find ourselves in is challenging in ways it was hard to imagine before it began. It calls on all of us to adapt to a very different world, and to face significant danger and uncertainty for ourselves, our loved ones, our societies and humanity as a whole. How can we best respond to take care of ourselves and each other while facing these unprecedented challenges?

Compassion for how we are feeling

Our distinctive Wellbeing for Learning approach, here at the University of Portsmouth, is all about how to develop the compassionate mindset that helps us bear the uncomfortable feelings that come with challenges, and choose effective caring strategies to support ourselves and others.

With the scale of the challenges facing us it is natural for us to be feeling stressed, anxious and fearful on a regular basis. Covid-19 represents a genuine danger, and our emotional threat response system is there to help us respond effectively to dangers and keep us safe. So when our fear helps us stick to social distancing or lockdown measures it is doing its job effectively.

What isn’t helpful  is if our threat response system remains in the driving seat, fuelling obsessive worry thoughts, angry attempts to blame others for our distress, or ‘head in the sand’ avoidance of ongoing life challenges. Or if it flips us into a panicky, knee-jerk drive response, spinning our wheels as we try to regain a sense of control through perfectionist overwork or through quick fix pseudo-solutions to our problems (like abusing food or other substances to self-medicate). 

Keeping our emotion regulation systems online and in balance will help us be best placed not just to survive but to thrive in the midst of danger and uncertainty:  

Soothing response Drive response Threat respose
Seeking out and giving support, offering caring and kindness to self and others, soothing our fears and settling any surplus anxiety, collaborating to re-engage with challenges. Engaging in purposeful activity to maintain bodily health and gather resources, maintaining focus on valued goals, persevering to solve problems and meet ongoing challenges. Anxiety keeping us alert to the real dangers we face, appropriate fear guiding us to seek shelter for ourselves and those we care about, anger fuelling courage to defend ourselves and others and meet challenges.

Strengthen support networks

A strong and well-engaged soothing system is the key to maintaining effective threat and drive responses. And in our Wellbeing for Learning approach, the key to a well-regulated soothing system is to map out and make full use of all the connections and support available and to contribute to the support networks of others.

Here at the University of Portsmouth our mission and values, and our Student Charter, underpin a strong ethos of mutual respect, inclusion and support. Doubling down and strengthening these networks of support is the most important single thing you can do in the current crisis:

  • Academic support
    Your personal tutor or research supervisor will be aiming to stay in touch with you. Look out for emails and respond to attempts to contact you. The University is fully committed to ensuring that students are supported so that they can still achieve their learning outcomes, and that their degree outcomes maintain their value despite the circumstances. Do bear in mind that your tutors and lecturers are human too, and also affected by the pandemic - they will be doing their best to safeguard and support your learning, and you can help them by responding to communication and letting them know what kind of help you need to be able to engage with the online learning they have worked so hard to make available.

  • Practical support
    When we are facing danger and uncertainty, our focus needs to go first to ensuring our basic needs are being met - somewhere safe to stay where we are secure enough to rest, sufficient resources and access to cover our basic needs for food and other supplies, contact with loved ones and other regular human contact. If you are having difficulty with any of these things then please check the Coronavirus FAQs page for up to date information about support from the University, and email infoline@port.ac.uk or call +44 (0)23 9284 5588 to let the University know what you need. For medical advice check the NHS 111 and/or contact your doctor.Keep an eye on the Coronavirus FAQs page for up-to-date information about all the ways in which the University is adapting to support its students and staff. Many additional measures have been put in place to offer additional practical support for students, from welfare calls to identify practical needs of those still in Portsmouth to additional financial support funds for those in need.

  • Wellbeing support
    Even when we do have access to basic resources, in times of danger and uncertainty we need to pay extra attention to our mental wellbeing too. It is natural to feel stressed and anxious in such circumstances, but there is a lot we can do to help ourselves manage this understandable stress - see below for more on self-careThe Student Wellbeing Service and all the other university support services are also still available to you, wherever you are, and here to help you if you need extra support to maintain your wellbeing in the face of the current challenges. Check out our other pages to find out more about the Virtual Wellbeing Cafe and other new forms of support. .

  • Supporting others
    Don’t forget that supporting others is also beneficial for engaging your soothing system. Even when you are having a tough time yourself, you could make a real difference to others. Complying with social distancing, and supporting those around you to manage the stresses of lockdown is a great starting point. What else can you do to help those around you during these difficult times? How about checking in with others on your course to create virtual study groups for extra support with online learning? You could also make a difference to your fellow students by sharing your experiences and strategies - find out more on the student leadership page.

Practise self-care and self-compassion

Of course, the most important caring relationship is the one we have with ourselves, and a vital aspect of a well-regulated soothing response is developing greater kindness and compassion in the way we treat ourselves. Self-care can sometimes be seen as luxury - the thing we do when we’ve covered all the other tasks on the agenda. But when times are tough, self-care needs to be our top priority. And in these times of uncertainty and fear, self-compassion and self-care are vital.his means going back to basics with eating regular meals of fresh, nutritious food, maintaining a regular sleep pattern, and ensuring that you remain active.

If you are not needing to self-isolate due to illness then make sure you get out every day, and do your best to maintain contact with the natural world. You could supplement this with indoor exercise, as well as mindful breathing and relaxation exercises. This advice on Coronavirus and your wellbeing from Mind is a useful starting point for addressing basic needs in order to support mental health and wellbeing.

The following self-help resources are those we recommend to supplement our own Wellbeing for Learning approach:

A step-by-step approach to facing and managing difficult feelings

The FACE COVID resources explain a step-by-step approach for managing difficult feelings when they arise, put together by Dr Russ Harris, author of the best-selling The Happiness Trap and of popular YouTube animations we often recommend for help with managing difficult feelings.

The FACE COVID YouTube video introduction is supplemented by this written explanation with more detail. Russ Harris’s more recent book The Reality Slap (2011, ConstableRobinson) is particularly relevant in the current circumstances and gives a more detailed explanation of his approach to managing difficult circumstances. You can download the first two chapters for free here. You can also currently download and use the Happiness Trap app for free - offering lots of mindfulness exercises and other activities to support this approach to managing difficult feelings.

Managing increased stress and anxiety

It is natural to be concerned about the dangers we are all facing, and this guide - Doing What Matters in Times of Stress - has been published by the World Health Organisation to help people practise practical skills for coping with adversity. It has a simple illustrated guide along with some short audio files to help with practising the skills.

If you find you are getting caught up in repetitive loops of anxious thoughts then this guide to living with worry and anxiety amidst global uncertainty from PsychologyTools.com is a useful resource to work through. It has a good sheet of suggested activities for keeping occupied and active during the lockdown.

Self-compassion

Our Wellbeing for Learning approach is based on the Professor Paul Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind model. You can hear more from Prof Gilbert himself in this collection of talks on Compassion, safe relating and world change. There are also lots of videos and resources on Dr Kristen Neff’s Self-compassion site.

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) workbooks

You may also benefit from looking at these workbooks from the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Australia. They offer an excellent step-by-step approach to learning CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) skills. Some of the most relevant workbooks to use during the current crisis include: 

Contact information
  • Student Wellbeing Service
  • Floor 2, Nuffield Centre, St Michael's Road, Portsmouth, PO1 2ED
  • wellbeing-admin@port.ac.uk
  • +44 (0)23 9284 3466

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