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Summa Cum Laude graduate, current post-graduate student at UKZN, Romaana Muhammad, shares her tips on surviving lockdown as a student

With the Easter holidays behind us and the COVID-19 lockdown having been extended, many students are feeling out of their element and overwhelmed by the additional amount of time they will now be spending confined to their homes. Many students do not know how to adequately utilise this time away from school or university, which is why BSS Summa Cum Laude graduate and current honour's in psychology student, Romaana Muhammad, decided to give students some advice on how to tackle this new situation that's been given to them.

"It is understandable that students may be afraid, worried and anxious during this time. Apart from being worried about our friends and family members whom we are not allowed to visit, we are dealing with much uncertainty surrounding our education, we've been thrown to face a situation that none of us had ever anticipated - studying through distance learning.

"First and foremost, I would like to mention that as much as we miss our friends and families and it feels like the world is crumbling down around us, life will go on after this and that means for us - students - we will be required to pass our courses at the end of the semester.

"In order to do this during this time, I recommend implementing the same practices as we usually did before the lockdown, that is: waking up early, taking a bath/shower, dressing up for the day, eating our breakfast, etc. As much as we may want to stay in our pyjamas the entire day, mental health professionals suggest that we take time in the morning to shower and put on clean clothes. This will help us feel more confident and ready for the day's work.

"Elizabeth Beecroft, a psychotherapist in New York, says: 'Getting dressed in the morning can play a role in your mood throughout the day and lead to further productivity, optimism, motivation and an overall improved mood.' Researchers have found that following our normal routines give us comfort and creates a feeling of security. Routines create a sense of structure and control over our environment, something we need to balance the recent loss of control that we have been experiencing due to this lockdown. We also need to pay extra attention to our health during this time.

"As a student, one's main priority, even before our education, should be our health. More so during this COVID-19 pandemic. It is important for us to keep a healthy body and mind and for that we need to make sure that we are eating our balanced meals three times a day, drinking enough water, getting enough of sunlight (even if this means sitting next to a window for at least half an hour a day) and getting as much exercise as we can in our own homes.

"Exercise can mean a walk around your apartment, home or garden, a quick morning stretching session or a full-on workout. During physical exercise, your skeletal muscle cells secrete proteins into the blood, which have a regenerative effect on the brain. This can help improve your memory and supercharge your cognitive performance! Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals naturally boost our mental state, which is necessary during this tough time. Your exercise sessions should be worked into your plan of action for the day.

"Students need to plan and structure their days, as there has always been imposed structures on our daily activities. Schedule specific times for each activity that needs to be completed during a specific day, whether this be meal prepping time, video-calling sessions or even snack breaks. Don't forget to schedule some alone time with a novel or a movie or anything that takes you away from your immediate family and your study space.

"If you haven't already got one by now - you need to have a dedicated study space. I know it's tempting to spend the entire day in bed or on the couch with your laptop, but this isn't very healthy for your body and can lead to fatigue and eventually pain in the neck and upper back. Your spine needs a stable backrest to lean on, try to keep your back straight against the backrest and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Always remember to pay attention to your posture while you are completing your tasks.

"Your space should ideally be situated in a quiet room like a spare bedroom or a garage to avoid distraction from other family members or playful pets. You can turn any table into a study-station by placing all your essentials such as your pens, highlighters, textbooks, notebooks, your laptop and a large bottle of water onto it. Add a comfortable chair that offers back support and you have your mini study-station! Using this space shows the people who live with you that you're 'at campus'. It is also important that you create boundaries within your home and that your family members understand that you are busy completing university (or school) tasks and that they do not distract you. Additionally, be mindful not to let social media be a distraction. This can be done by logging out of your social media accounts for the day or only allowing yourself to go online during your breaks.

"It is important to schedule breaks and not to spend too much time in front of a screen. Try to alternate between studying and taking lectures on your laptop and reading physical printed textbooks or printed or handwritten notes. Looking at a screen for extended periods can cause strained, dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches. It also causes sleep issues as the blue light emitted from screens suppress melatonin - the sleep-promoting hormone - keeping us from having a restful sleep. Spending significant time with screens also lowers your cardiovascular health and increases your mortality risk. A good idea to reduce screen time would be to step away from your desk and study or read a printed novel in your garden for a few minutes a day; this could serve as a study or break session, depending on what you choose to do during this time.

"According to The Attention Restoration Theory by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, being outside can calm our minds and improves our ability to concentrate, it re-energises us and reduces fatigue. In addition, being outdoors lowers the stress hormone - cortisol - and immunises us against associated problems such as hypertension and tachycardia. Spending time outside could be a good habit to implement just before the end of your campus day.

"End your campus day as you normally would, at around 4pm, and spend the rest of the evening relaxing as you usually would. Watching TV, browsing through social media, etc, but be conscious of your mental health while engaging in these activities. Being exposed to news and COVID-19 statistics can increase our feelings of fear and anxiety. We can curb this by managing our exposure to media coverage, being mindful of where our information comes from and ensuring we are accessing accurate information. It is also wise to limit news intake to brief periods such as half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening.

"Lastly, keep to your bedtime and make sure you get those eight hours of sleep every night! Healthy sleep is important for emotion regulation, which is why we may find a good sleep beneficial during this time. Try to limit your time in bed to your regular night-time activities such as listening to music or calling a friend.

"Be mindful of checking up on your friends during this time. If you suspect that someone you know may be struggling through social distancing, it is important to reach out to them and let them know you care. Social distancing can be difficult, especially if someone is a sociable individual. However, social distancing does not mean social isolation. We are still allowed to virtually communicate with people and with modern technology, video-calling friends can be just as entertaining and satisfying as being with them face-to-face. Schedule online lunch dates or send a friend a video message - it may just make their day! If we want to make a difference in the lives of more people during this difficult time, we should also pay special attention to those we know who have psychiatric illnesses.

"Being isolated may cause individuals prone to depressive episodes to focus all their attention onto the aspects of their lives that upsets them. In addition, constantly being updated about the COVID-19 pandemic may increase their sense of negativity about their circumstances. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder may also feel distress during this time as they may be restricted to spaces shared with people who have inflicted violence upon them. This can trigger memories of negative experiences and can reawaken dormant traumatic episodes. We should encourage these individuals to contact their psychologists or SADAG when they feel the need arise and we should try to be a beacon of hope and support for them, as mental health professional resources are currently strained and these individuals may not get the ideal amount of therapy that they need.

"While lockdown is a difficult concept to deal with, we will get used to it. The most important things are to stay positive, follow the lockdown rules and remember that this will all be over soon. With that, I wish you all the best of luck, keep studying, stay safe and stay home!"

For those in need of mental health support, SADAG is providing support through:

1. Online Toolkit on the Sadag website (www.sadag.org) with free resources, online videos, reliable resources, coping skills, online tools and info on social distancing, self-isolation, etc.2. Chat online with a counsellor 7 days a week from 09h00 - 16h00 via the Cipla WhatsApp Chat Line 076 882 2775.3. SMS 31393 or 32312 and a counsellor will call you back - available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.4. Sadag Helplines providing free telephonic counselling, information, referrals and resources 7 days a week, 24 hours a day - call 0800 212 223, 0800 708 090 or 0800 456 789 or the Suicide Helpline 0800 567 567.

You can also contact:

Lifeline 24-hour counselling numbers: 0861 322 322 or 0800 150 150.Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline - 0800 708 090.Suicide Crisis Line - 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393.Cipla 24-Hour Mental Health Helpline - 0800 456 789 or WhatsApp: 076 882 2775.