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Coping with COVID-19: How Students Can Get Help in Finding Structure and Motivation During the Global Pandemic

by Alicia Dorsett

This is a very scary, stressful time right now, and the last thing that feels important is finishing school. We’re home, which automatically feels like we should be able to do nothing, and that is not the case.

Finding motivation and creating a structure and routine is on everybody’s minds to some extent, but we’re all sort of lost on how exactly to do it. And we don’t have time for trial and error.

Gayle Pamerleau, Director of Counseling at Pitt-Greensburg, and health scientist Dave Newman, offer tips to students who need help with creating their new “normal.”

Paumerleau is a Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and has a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, and she is the person students are directed to when to comes to counseling and other topics in under that umbrella. Newman has a Master’s degrees in Poetry and Social Work and works in pain research, where he tries to find non-surgical solutions to various issues of pain.

What, do you feel, is the importance of having structure or a routine in everyday life? How can this be helpful?

Paumerleau: Structure and routine help us feel grounded because we know what to expect. That’s really important right now when so much of the stress from this pandemic comes from all the unknowns. So, it’s important to focus on things we are sure of and can predict. We may be social distancing indefinitely, but Pitt’s spring semester ends in three weeks. Schedules and habits can also help us stay on track with what we have to do. That’s especially important now, when we are all stuck doing everything – working, studying, relaxing – from home.

But, while structure and routine are important, it’s also important to be flexible. Life happens, and we have to adapt to unexpected negatives and allow for spontaneous positives. Being too rigid with routines can be unhealthy.

Newman:  It’s really important to stay focused on the moment and to find positive things around you. If you’re constantly thinking big-picture things, you’ll get overwhelmed.

What are habits that people/students can form to create normalcy in their lives?

Paumerleau: Doing things to create healthy structure and routine can help. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day creates a better sleep schedule. Blocking off time for work/homework and relaxation time can help you stay focused. Using a planner or to-do lists to keep track of due dates and chores helps you meet deadlines. Making sure you get outside for a while and get some exercise helps reduce stress and keep perspective. Stay connected with people you care about, doing things you enjoy, and practicing relaxations skills (deep breathing, muscle relaxation, etc.) helps you stay calm. Try to be aware of the things you can still choose and control.

Newman: I’ve included a breathing exercise that we’ve sent to everyone in our research study to help stay calm. It’s a good way to start the day. And end the day.

What are habits that should be avoided if possible, during this time (or in general)?

Paumerleau: The opposite of the above! Try to avoid staying up really late, napping a lot during the day, and becoming nocturnal. Try to avoid getting pulled into time-consuming distractions, like binge-watching. The one thing specific to the pandemic situation I would recommend is to limit how much and what kind of news you take in. It’s easy to get sucked into reading or watching a lot of scary statistics and stories.  Outside of social distancing, we can’t control this, so overwhelming ourselves with scary news doesn’t do any good. Yes, check in and stay aware, but don’t let it consume you.

Newman: I’ve included another handout. One of the main things is balance. Now is not the time to be binge watching news. You can still pay attention to the world, but don’t let the world overwhelm you. Check in with the CDC to see what guidelines are in place. Don’t watch 8 hours of cable news or get into Twitter fights and cause yourself stress.

Can you recommend good study habits that may be even more important to exercise during this time?

Paumerleau: Many students study better away from their home or room, and not being able to do that now is very difficult. So, in addition to what I said above about structure/scheduling and routine/habits, anything you can do to create a space and some structure that is designated for school can help. Put deadlines and due dates on a calendar. Break study time into smaller amounts and take breaks. Set your phone alarm to go off every 15 minutes, and check to see that you’re on task when it rings. Set goals and give yourself rewards for meeting them. Talk to friends after the paper is done, watch a show after you do the reading, and get exercise when you take breaks. Try to look forward to the end of finals week.

Newman: Structure. Pick a time. Write it down. Even if you change the time, you’ll remember it still needs to be done.

Because we are meant to be social distancing and self-isolating during this time it can be difficult to interact with friends/family that we aren’t isolating with. What is the importance of social interaction and how can we improve/enrich these interactions while self-isolating?

Paumerleau: Social connection is important for our health. Having positive social connection and relationships can increase your life expectancy. Obviously, staying connected is better in person. Physical contact like hugging loved ones and snuggling pets makes us feel good. Face to face connections are best because you can see facial expressions and hear voice intonations. So, video contact is the next best thing. Phone calls allow you to at least hear the other’s voice. People feel good when they know someone cares, so reaching out, regardless of how, is important right now. Visiting the elderly by waving through the window, sending cards to people, or any way you can let others know you care is important.  Especially those who live alone and our health care workers. I think in situations like this global crisis we all do better when we feel connected to our community too – however we define that.

Newman: It’s probably never been easier to social distance but it’s still difficult, especially for extroverts. Get digital. Skype, Zoom, Facetime, or just call and talk. Whatever you love, keep loving it from afar. So many musicians are livestreaming shows. Tune in. The same with poets. All of these things happen in digital groups. Don’t be afraid to be a part of that. Include your loved ones. Check in on your loved ones.

Feelings of anxiety may be heightened currently, what are some things students can do to manage these feelings?

Paumerleau: If anxiety is worse due to fears about getting sick, limit time spent with the news. Talk with someone you trust about the facts and try to focus on what you can do to stay healthy. Focus on the positive statistics. If anxiety is worse due to having to move home – less privacy, stressful relationships – try to find ways to have alone time. Go for walks, close your door, and reach out to friends with similar frustrations. For coping with anxiety in general, relaxation (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation) and grounding exercises can be helpful. There are lots of helpful techniques on our TAO platform on the Counseling Center’s webpage.

Newman: Breathing and exercise are both excellent treatments for anxiety.

Students at Pitt-Greensburg are still expected/required to complete classwork during this time. How can we find motivation to keep up with the workload?

Paumerleau:I know a lot of students are really struggling with this. It’s getting nice outside, the semester is almost over, we’re ready to be done anyway, and now having to finish on-line, possibly from home is really hard. As with the structure and study habits questions: setting goals, rewarding yourself, having short and manageable to-do lists, creating a study space. Once something becomes habit or routine, it takes much less energy to keep doing it – it’s automatic. A manageable amount of anxiety is what keeps us motivated to perform well with anything. So, worry about your grades more than the virus. Don’t let COVID-19 impact your GPA.

Newman: If you enjoy a class, focus on the enjoyment and the connection. If you don’t enjoy the class, focus on the endgame: getting a good grade. Set a reasonable goal and try to achieve. Put that goal in writing. Anything you want to complete, either fun or difficult, put it in writing. Writing reminds and focuses us.

Do you have any insight or advice for students (or people in general) right now? Things for them to remember, reassurances, etc.

Paumerleau: Perspective is vitally important. Work hard to make sure your thoughts and comments are coming from the perspective of optimism whenever possible. From flattening the curve to finishing the semester, try to think in terms of making the best of this situation, of finding the positives. If we dwell on the awful, everything feels worse.

And gratitude is also vital. Positive psychology research has found it directly linked to happiness and improved mood. Try to find one thing each day that you are grateful for, especially something that might not have happened if we weren’t quarantined. More exercise, time with family, etc. One of our students shared this with me, it was credited to photographer Brook Anderson, seen on ABC’s Good Morning America about two weeks ago. I think it sums up everything really well.

Daily Quarantine Questions:

1.What am I grateful for today?

2.Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?

3.What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?

4.How am I getting outside today?

5.How am I moving my body today?

6.What beauty am I either creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?


Do things you love. Every day. Within all that is happening, there is still space for happiness. Embrace that. And return it to others.

For more tips and tricks about keeping structure in your quarantine life, check out “Routine, Structure, Motivation, and Where to Find Them.”

Other resources for students:

Pitt-Greensburg’s Counseling Center

Therapy Assistance Online (TAO)

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