Dealing with stress and mental health during a global pandemic  

Whether you’re in the final year of the STP trying to complete competencies, the IACC all while applying for clinical scientist jobs after training, or even if you’re just about to go through the STP interview process, mental health is something that can affect everyone. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that mental health affects one in four people worldwide. If trying to battle through a demanding training programme wasn’t enough, we now have to deal with a global pandemic, which is not only affecting how we work but also everyday aspects of our professional and personal lives. Although lockdown restrictions are starting to lift, we’ve been told to adjust to the “new normal” whatever that is supposed to mean. So, considering we need to adjust the way we work in the future, such as working from home more or working a different shift pattern. We all need to take a bit of time to prepare ourselves for this change and make sure we’re looking after our mental wellbeing.

mindfulness

My name is Hannah, I’m currently in the final year of the STP, specialising in Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (H&I). I’ll admit dealing with my own mental health like anxiety and stress hasn’t been easy in the last couple of years while training. At the start of the STP, I had to juggle moving three hours away from my partner, friends, and family, while tackling doing a second postgraduate degree and working as a trainee in a new environment. However, through all of this, I consider myself extremely lucky that my department is incredibility friendly and supportive. I’ve made brilliant friends in Cambridge and after two and a half years I’m starting to feel more settled. (Shout out to Adriana Toutoudaki, the co-owner of this blog for living/putting up with me the last two years). I know every STP has a different story and experience, that’s why community spaces like this blog are so important to connect us together and support each other in order to share our problems, ideas, and interests.

I wanted to use this blog post to provide some helpful tips on managing stress, while also providing tips and resources on looking after your mental health.

Tips for helping with anxiety and stress:

  • Being organised: I know it’s obvious, but it really does help. Contemplating all the tasks that need to be completed in the next couple of months can be daunting. I like to set myself daily manageable tasks that work towards a bigger goal. These daily tasks might be reading a handful of papers for an upcoming assignment or dedicating a morning of a study day to write a specific competency and the afternoon on revising for an exam. It’s important to remember not to be hard on yourself if you don’t achieve these daily goals. Procrastination is natural and we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit we all procrastinate. Tomorrow will be a new day to focus on a task, don’t dwell on the past.
  • A concept I’ve learnt about recently is a theory/therapy called ‘worry timeThis related to dedicating a time to worry when you have a lot of thoughts going through your mind. These worries or thoughts might be personal or related to stress with work and academic studies. When we’re overthinking due to stress and anxiety, this prevents us to properly focusing on a task. Most of the time, worrying about these problems will not solve our issues. Therefore, dedicating a ‘worry time’ to allow you to think about your worries can be more useful than stressing about them constantly throughout the day. Switching off your thoughts and anxieties isn’t easy it takes practice, but it can help once you apply this method to your daily life. There are apps you can download to help with this process such as “WorryTree” and “ReachOut WorryTime”.
  • Secondly, having a bit of self-compassion. Through times of stress and worries, we are often our harshest critics, seeing the flaws in ourselves, often increasing our stress and worries. Individually, we need to focus on being nicer to ourselves. It’s important to accept that we all go through difficult times of suffering and allowing ourselves to recognise that is critical. If you find your self being critical, try talking to yourself the way you would talk to a close friend. You’ll notice the change in tone and language.
  • Finally, it is also important to be open and honest with colleagues and friends, it really does help with your mental wellbeing. If you’re struggling with the changes at work, or just don’t feel like you’re adapting well to the current setting during a global pandemic, make sure you talk to your colleagues or friends. It’s essential to have a support network as everyone has their own struggles.

Tips to help with sleep:

  • Headspace is a science-based meditation app which focuses on mindfulness and meditation techniques to help with stress, relaxation, concentration and sleep. I’ve been using this app for a couple of months now and find it incredibly useful to try and relax my mind during stressful times. Even better, Headspace is now free for all NHS staff until the end of the year. Go to this link and register with your NHS email to sign up. https://www.headspace.com/nhs
  • Grounding techniques is a method of diverting and distracting the mind from stress and worries to refocus the mind on the present moment. This can be achieved by categorising films, objects, animals or thinking about the five senses within the current moment. I find this especially useful when I’m trying to sleep and find myself over-thinking after a stressful day at work or university. I tend to list TV series, movies or books from A-Z and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about my worries. For more information on grounding techniques see here https://www.healthline.com/health/grounding-techniques

Health and wellbeing resources 

If you are currently on the STP, you may have received an email on health and wellbeing from the National School of Healthcare Science. There are a couple of resources I wanted to highlight from that email that can be useful for any aspiring healthcare scientists or scientists currently working in the NHS.

  • The Academy for Healthcare Science, AHCS Professional Bodies Council and the Office of the Chief Scientific Officer for England HCS have set up a wellbeing initiative. They have worked together to develop a free text service with NHSE and the Behavioural Insights Team. By signing up you’ll receive one message a week for 8 weeks, offering you prompts and signposting to wellbeing resources. All you need to do is provide your UK mobile phone number – it will take you about 30 seconds to sign up and you can unsubscribe at any time. Your information won’t be used for any other purpose. The deadline for signing up is the 24th June. 
  • For NHS staff there is the “Our NHS People Wellbeing Support initiative”.  All NHS staff will have access to a range of support. There is a free wellbeing support helpline 0300 131 7000, available from 7.00 am – 11.00 pm seven days a week, providing confidential listening from trained professionals and specialist advice – including coaching, bereavement care, mental health and financial help. For more information please go here. https://people.nhs.uk/

nhsmind

Finally, don’t forget to check in on your friends and loved ones. Even if it’s a simple text, we have to look after each other to get through these uncertain times together. Keep safe everyone, and as Boris would say…. stay alert!!!  (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

Hannah

Author: hannahturnbull94

STP in Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics at Addenbrookes Hospital

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